Monday, 24 September 2012

A British food renaissance? Think again

Bad Food Britain by Joanna Blythman

It’s not often that a book leaves me confused as to whether to bang my head against a brick wall or pull my hair out. Or both. At the same time.

But Bad Food Britain is exactly that sort of a book.

Joanna Blythman’s 2006 polemic against the state of the nation’s food is precisely that: a polemic.

But there's a place for polemic and, even when you half know what to expect, she has the power to shock.

Just take a couple of stats.

By the time of working on this book, Britons were eating 51% of all the crisps and snacks consumed on the entire continent of Europe.

That’s around 6,000 million packets of crisps a year – and 4,400 million packets of other snacks.

By 2005, we were eating more ready meals than the rest of the continent of Europe put together.

Sales of dining tables are down – because a declining number of people think it’s worth having somewhere to sit down properly and eat.

There are plenty of stories that will leave the reader rolling their eyes, from the environmental health officers who prefer (and sometimes insist) on plastic chopping boards even when wooden ones have been shown scientifically to have a natural ‘anti-bacterial’ quality that stops bacteria multiplying where the plastic one don't – and have quite the opposite effect.

There is the developer who built houses for holidaymakers from abroad who wanted to self cater – and found themselves in trouble because they’d only put a microwave in the kitchens, and visitors from abroad expected proper cooking equipment.

There are stories about the state of British hospital food and of malnourished patients admitted to a health system that, perversely, does not see food as a valuable part of health care.

And, of course, there is the tortured question of school meals.

Blythman makes a superb observation on the latter, where the system is obsessed with choice. Would primary school children be expected to choose which lessons they were going to do or not?

Of course not. In which case, why the obsessive belief that they should be able to choose what they have for their school lunch?

Even if you’re not particularly worried about what other adults fuel themselves with, then what is being fed to children, particularly in schools, where the idea should be that their welfare is at the top of the agenda, must be ethically criminal at the very least.

And it is in total contradiction to pretty much any country other than our own and the US.

Yes, there clearly needs to be more parental responsibility shown too, but assuming you cannot find a quick-fix way to make or 'nudge' (a current favourite government idea) parents into feeding children better – and that's also assuming they actually have the skills to do so – then schools are an environment where you could at least hope to make a positive impact.

And that's not just in terms of what the children are given to eat at lunchtime – but also in terms of what they're taught. The emergence of 'food technology' as the replacement for the old 'domestic science' is one that apparently seeks to educate children about industrial processes.

'How does a factory make a muffin?' is one sort of question that's mentioned. As a teacher put it: 'why not just teach them to cook one?'

As with the equally excellent Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarketsBlythman provides an absolute mass of evidence to show that, far from being some sort of new foodie paradise – as per the media's defensive pretense – Britain’s food culture is a mess. And a deeply unhealthy one.

She also pokes a stick into the nest of radical feminism, from within which some have claimed that real cooking is part of the tyranny against women and convenience food is liberation.

And she doesn't forget the rent-a-quote populists like Julie Birchill, who rail against any negative comment on fast/junk food as class-based snobbery.

At the heart of all this is what can only be described, at best, as an ambivalent national attitude toward food.

In the UK, food is not something to be really enjoyed and cherished, with time spent on it considered one of life’s great investments, but as fuel and an inconvenience that can best be ‘solved’ by an increasing reliance on so-called convenience foods, snacking and fast food.

It is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon puritanism that still, somehow, holds sway. It's no coincidence, for instance, that in popular terms, we use the love of food as something to hold up about all that is wrong with our age-old enemy, the French.

Blythman can only find one other country where the same attitude – and the same health problems – are so dominant: the US. Which should tell us something.

And behind all this is a food industry that is perfectly happy for this situation to continue; an industry that behaves disingenuously and with no concern or sense of responsibility for anything beyond profits.

If there is a problem with this book, it’s that it doesn’t really suggest how to combat this.

But if Blythman makes a few people look at and change their own habits, then perhaps that is entirely enough of a positive development.

Do read and do inwardly digest – and the latter will be easier than with much of what is passed off as food in this country these days.

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