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During the past week, the views of Conservative MP Anna Soubry combined with the Tesco 'horseburgers' scandal to provide a cautionary tale about the food environment of Britain in 2013.
Soubry, a junior Minister in the Department of Health, told the Daily Telegraph: “you can almost now tell somebody's background by their weight." She was evidently not referring to Nicholas Soames. Being overweight is routinely associated with ignorance, lack of self-control and general fecklessness – all convenient sticks with which to beat some of our less fortunate citizens. Although the Minister went on to qualify her observation by adding that "not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that's where the propensity lies", this sounded unpleasantly like another example of the government's propensity to demonise the poorer members of society.
Ms Soubry may have been thoughtless rather than malicious, but her comments enabled others to pile in with far less restrained contributions. Within a day of her views becoming a talking point, I heard a well-spoken man on Radio 5 opine that “they're fat because they're thick”. You could call that hate speech.
There are many reasons why malnutrition frequently manifests as obesity in our culture. A good diet does depend on some knowledge of nutrition and sufficient money to be able to buy healthy foodstuffs. If you live on a large urban estate or, paradoxically, in a rural area, access to retail outlets selling fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and poultry may not be easy. About five years ago, I wrote a piece about a Salvation Army project in a deprived ward of a large town. What I observed while walking around one of the many housing estates in that neighbourhood was probably fairly typical. The only accessible parade of shops, which served hundreds of families, offered two fast food takeaways and a general store where most of the stock consisted of cheap processed food.
A young mother told me that “getting into town” was both difficult and expensive. She had three children under five and it was not difficult to see her point. Nor was it hard to understand that high calorie sweet or starchy food might be a quick and relatively cheap panacea for quietening discontented children or offering a few minutes comfort in a difficult existence.
Those of us who were brought up in families where good nutrition was understood and who have both healthy metabolisms and sufficient resources to buy and prepare wholesome food, may not always grasp the problems of many who are less fortunately placed. I don't count myself as well off, but I can afford to get to a local market where I can buy fresh produce at reasonable prices. I know how to cook and how to exercise so it is not difficult for me to maintain a healthy weight. But possibly the most significant factor is that in having interesting work, living in a reasonably pleasant environment and enjoying loving, secure relationships, I am not tempted to any kind of bingeing or comfort eating. This is not a good reason for being censorious or contemptuous of others. It is, however, a good reason for urging government and other decision makers to reflect on a more just and intelligent system of food regulation, advertising and education.
We have a Secretary of State for Education who has exempted Academies and Free Schools from the nutritional standards required of Local Authority schools. We have a government unwilling to take on regulation of the food and drink industries or to fund programmes of education around nutrition, food budgeting and cooking skills. We have a supermarket culture which places sweets and crisps by checkouts where restive children can put considerable pressure on harassed parents.
Suppose we had a regulatory regime which did not permit the manufacture of 'value' burgers in which horse meat is probably one of the more wholesome ingredients? Suppose we had an information campaign which helped people to choose other forms of low cost protein? Suppose we had a government with sufficient vision to give tax breaks to shops prepared to sell fruit, vegetables and wholefoods in deprived areas and sufficient courage to set statutory limits for sugar and salt in children's food? Suppose we had more Local Authorities willing to ban fast food outlets near schools? Above all, suppose we had a government not set on driving more families into the poverty which so restricts their choices.
Revisiting their own policies would be a far more constructive course of action on the part of Coalition MPs than making generalised and harmful remarks about those who suffer the most from those policies.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet