I am aware some people have always found Jamie Oliver insufferable: that boyish smarm, that hint of condescension about how less well-off people live their lives, provokes in them a perverse urge to stuff their faces with macaroni pies. Suffice it to say that in Oliver-hating terms, I am late to the garden party. Though I was not blind to his snobbery, I thought his efforts to excise Turkey Twizzlers from school dinners were well-intentioned and his campaign for a sugar tax worth a shot.
Last week’s call for a ban on 2-for-1 pizzas, however, pushed me firmly into the anti-Oliver camp and not merely because a man who has made millions from selling Italian food to those who could afford to eat it in a restaurant appeared to be sneering at those whose only hopes of enjoying the same experience was to look out for special offers at their local takeaway. His proposal just seemed so superficial, so facile, so lacking in any understanding of how ordinary families function or any attempt to get to grips with the complexities of the interplay between deprivation and the UK’s obesity problem; it was as if a veil had been pulled back to reveal Oliver in all his paternalistic glory.
After a year in which Scottish food banks handed out 170,625 three-day emergency food parcels, just under a third of which were to children, could the TV chef really believe the odd Margherita was the crux of this generation’s nutritional problems?
It was disappointing, then, to see the First Minister, whose party has not shied away from transformative health policies, such as minimum pricing for alcohol and the campaign for a drugs consumption facility, endorsing Oliver’s idea as she announced a target of halving child obesity in Scotland by 2030.
Given that statistics show one in three of the country’s children are at risk of being overweight, with a further 14 per cent at risk of being obese, few people would argue against making children’s diets a priority.
Those who are obese as children are likely to continue being obese into adulthood and are at increased risk of suffering from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Two in three adults in Scotland are now overweight and the annual cost to the NHS of obesity is estimated at between £360m and £600m.
Since 2000, childhood obesity levels have remained static, which means that for almost 20 years, despite hundreds of thousands of pounds being invested in healthy eating initiatives, few inroads have been made.
The notion that cracking down on 2-for-1 promotions is the answer to all this, however, could only come courtesy of someone who has never had to fill empty bellies on a tight budget; the kind of person who wonders why those from deprived areas might spend money they don’t have on a plasma TV (it’s because they can’t afford to go out at night, Jamie).
Choosing to eat healthily is in many ways the prerogative of the better off; it’s easy to make smoothies if you own a liquidiser; cheap meat casseroles are a cinch if you have a large pot to put them in and aren’t scrabbling around for coins to feed the electricity metre; little tubs of hummus are a joy, especially if they come beautifully packaged from Waitrose. Add to this the effort of shopping when the nearest supermarket is two bus rides away and the kids are hungry and irritable and demanding something to eat Right This Minute.
Offers like Domino’s Two for Tuesday allow those whose lives are a daily struggle to inject a frisson of excitement into the occasional mealtime; to take the pressure off, for once, so maybe their time together as a family will be less fraught. Although still far from cheap, two large pizzas for the price of one may also enable those whose parents could not otherwise afford to cope with more mouths to invite a few of their friends round for tea.
Outlawing such offers might arguably make the odd pound or so difference to some children’s weight, but it would also strip another small pleasure from lives that are already more difficult than Oliver is ever likely to experience.
And, yes, I can see there is a potential contradiction here: how is it possible to support the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing on alcohol – as I do – while arguing against similarly interventionist action on unhealthy food? The answer is this: alcohol is something we choose to consume, but eating is a necessity. The way to tackle obesity, therefore, is not to make junk food more expensive, but to make healthy food cheaper and more accessible and – above all – to ensure people are invested in their own well-being.
To encourage kids to do more exercise too, of course. In a piece of spectacularly unfortunate timing, at roughly the same time as Sturgeon was telling Oliver about her plans to clamp down on cheap junk food promotions, Glasgow City Council was announcing the scrapping of unlimited free swimming for children and pensioners. From 28 May, under-18s will have to pay £1 a session, while OAPs will pay £3.
Depute council leader David McDonald said this decision was made because the take-up of free swimming for concessions had plummeted since the policy was introduced in 2001 and because the most affluent were making more use of it than the least affluent.
Surely though, the response to this is not to further discourage those from deprived areas by introducing charges, however minimal, but to go into schools and encourage more young people to go along. The thing about swimming is it’s the most egalitarian of sports: it requires no expensive equipment, no forward planning and you can take part in groups of any size. All you need is to grab trunks and towel and you are good to go.
McDonald says Glasgow City Council has reduced the cost of an adult swim and there will be targeted free swimming during weekends and the holidays so kids will still be able to benefit so long as they are organised enough to check out timings in advance. Yet cuts like these send out a negative message in a city where poor health is entrenched, especially given that reports on the Commonwealth Games suggest there has been little dividend in terms of increased participation in physical activity.
I am not suggesting there is a quick fix to any of this: consoles, smart phones, poverty, out-of-town supermarkets and several generations’ reliance on convenience foods all play their part in an intricate web of factors which fuel poor choices.
Perhaps Sturgeon’s plans to halve child obesity by 2030 are more complex than her chat with Oliver would suggest. I hope so. Because pretending this can be solved by a proxy war on Domino’s won’t help fill rumbling stomachs, but it could leave a bad taste in the mouth.