It’s been a tough 12 months for Jamie Oliver. Last year he closed six Jamie’s Italian restaurants and the last branch of his Union Jack chain. In January another dozen branches of Jamie’s Italian closed.
With company debts reportedly over £70 million, you’d be forgiven for thinking he would have his hands full trying to sort out the day job. However this week he stepped up to take on the biggest public health issue facing the nation in the bulging shape of our growing obesity crisis. With a wife, five children and a personal fortune of more than £240m, he doesn’t need to do that. He could spend his days sipping Champagne and eating caviar with a solid gold spoon but instead he’s taking on one of our toughest challenges. Why?
At the start of the year he gave us a clue in an interview with Delicious Magazine. “We’re only on this planet for a pretty short time and I see my place as having a use,” he said. Oliver’s commitment to making a difference to childhood obesity stretches back over a decade. In 2005, his TV show Jamie’s School Dinners introduced healthy low-budget meals and led to the fundamental menu changes. The Turkey Twizzlers may have gone but childhood obesity hasn’t. Nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese in the UK. Across the rest of the EU, the issue affects between just 16 and 22 per cent.
Jamie Oliver has plenty of critics. “Who does he think he is? Self-appointed food police, shut up Jamie,” was one of the more polite comments on social media this week. “You hypocrite, not everyone can afford good food. Sometimes sweets and biscuits to the poor is vital” was another.
However Jamie won’t shut up in the face of ignorance and apathy. In fact, his voice is getting stronger. Addressing MPs this week, he called childhood obesity “a catastrophe” and “a national security issue”. The language was strong but also justified and necessary. Put simply, we are being dragged down by our own weight. The annual cost to the NHS in Scotland of people being overweight and obese is £600m. But that masks a higher figure related to the cost to society of obesity-driven diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. That could be as high as £27 billion a year.
There is no single magic bullet to sort a problem that has been allowed to develop over generations but we know where to start. We need more restrictions on junk food ads for children and relentless pressure on food manufacturers to cut fat and sugar levels. Where that doesn’t work, targeted taxation needs to be the next step. We need better food education in schools and to examine tough choices like keeping children in school over lunch.
We also need to look at increasing exercise opportunities for children. Parents have a role to play, but the Government also needs to grasp the seriousness of the issue. Public information campaigns on everything from littering and smoking to AIDS were once commonplace. They could be used to starkly warn of the dangers. When it comes to this issue, Jamie Oliver just won’t shut up. Let’s hope the next generation grows up healthier to thank him for that.