Friday, 4 January 2013

Porky Pickles and the biscuit syndrome

'Please God, can somebody bring me a custard cream.'
Welcome to 2013 – and the season of resolutions. Or put another way, the season of post-festive guilt and denial of pleasure.

I actually know someone who is not only giving up booze for January, but going vegetarian for the month too. Did they really indulge that month over the festive period?

Of course it tallies rather nicely with the Anglo-Saxon predilection for a spot of masochistic mortification.

It also tallies with the current – and increasing, to judge from the plethora of stories on the subject – obsession with the issue of rising obesity. And this also translates into a morbid terror of being – and, at least as importantly – being perceived to be even slightly over one’s supposed ideal weight.

Only two days ago, the Telegraph had a clergyman writing on the subject. He chose to rail against the idea that government should do anything about the issue, and said it was all a question of the lazy getting off their backsides and doing some exercise.

Apparently, everyone who is obese spends their entire day in front of the telly, stuffing their gob. You’ll never see anyone working who is overweight.

Now this was an opinion piece – but wouldn’t you expect opinions be at least a teensy weensy bit informed, most especially in a serious newspaper?

However, the Rev Dr Peter Mullen doesn’t like that route. And as for any Christian charity ...

But with the new year barely four days old, that’s far from the end of it.

It seems that, if you’re claiming benefits and live in Westminster, you’ll have to shed the pounds unless you want to lose that money.

The real laugh – well, a chuckle at any rate – will be when that recipient of much public cash, Eric Pickles, the rotund secretary of state for local government, makes any comment on this new example of ‘localism’.

Perhaps he’ll keep quiet and decide to act on his own department’s reported £10,000 increase in its annual biscuit bill.

That's biscuits, right. More than £10,000 on biscuits? I can’t even begin to imagine how you’d spend that sort of money on biscuits. What sort of biscuits were they – golden garibaldis?

For all this demonisation of the unemployed – and the working poor – there seems to be one rule for the rich and an entirely different set of rules for the poor.

For Pickles, who is presiding over many of the cuts to local government and for whom the 'localism' ideology that is allowing Westminster to moot it's 'lose weight or lose your benefits' scheme is a particularly important idea, being fat and eating loads of biscuits at the taxpayer's expense is not an issue.

This is the same man who told councils to save money by not having mineral water at meetings. And yet ...

The widespread condemnation doesn't exist, because weight is popularly considered a choice – and because he isn't unemployed or claiming benefits, even though his wage and expenses are paid by the state, by the taxpayer; even more so than the low-income cleaner's housing benefit is paid by the taxpayer.

But the first two stories help to create or feed the idea that only the unemployed and benefit recipients – ‘scroungers’ – are obese, and that they’re getting fat on ‘our taxes’ and clogging up the NHS with their laziness and greed.

And judging by some of the comments on both the Telegraph and BBC websites – and on the basis of other comments on other sites at other times – the wheeze is remarkably effective.

There is absolutely no mention anywhere of:

• the cost of fresh food;

• the lack of cooking skills;

• the use of such calorie-loaded ingredients as high fructose corn syrup – used in many, unexpected ways, such as giving a glaze to a pizza base;

• the wider use of sugars and ingredients such as MSG in processed foods – even ones that are characterised as ‘healthy’, such as breakfast cereals or yogurts, many of which are disingenuously marketed as ‘low fat’, with the implication that that makes them healthy;

• the issue of working people with very low incomes;

• the issue of working people who are obese.

Nope. This is an entirely one-sided relationship, where big business has no responsibility and we, the customer, must shoulder it entirely on our own; and where obesity is simply the product of sloth and greed – a pair of comfortingly traditional sins for this period of mortification (which will be followed by Lent, another period of mortification and denial).

Now just to be clear: I personally cannot understand how parents can allow a child to become seriously obese. We’re not talking ‘puppy fat’ or a little tubby, but seriously obese. What is going through their minds?

Do they actually not see the weight gain? Do they not think it’s an issue? Do they not care – or are they actually deluding themselves?

Nobody is saying that the solutions are easy. I’ve talked to people who, for instance, have made a conscious decision to switch from eating a lot of processed and fast food to cooking freshly for themselves and their family – even when obesity is not an issue.

It takes time; it takes dedication. And it also takes work to convince children to eat fresh foods that are not full of sugars and other additives. Because those things are addictive and of course, if you start them young …

Well, you all know the adage about the Jesuit saying ‘give me a child’.

But the equation is NOT one-sided and the issues are not as straightforward as some believe and others would like to pretend.

In the UK, we spend 10% less, per household on food than anywhere else in Europe. It’s probably fair to say that most people would accept that our fellow Europeans eat better than we do, in general.

And obviously we have an increasing number of people being forced to use food banks simply to get by – although there is now at least case of a politician trying to say that this is only a symptom of people’s inadequacy too.

Part of the problem here is the high percentage of anyone’s income that they have to spend simply on somewhere to live.

When government complains about the cost of housing benefit – much of which is paid to people who are working, but are in low-income jobs – then what it should really be pointing out is that landlords can simply choose to hike rents as much as they please. And they do so.

This is exactly the sort of behaviour highlighted in Hackney butcher Henry Tidiman’s story – we need rent control for both the commercial and residential sectors.

We have also, in the past 30 years, seen massive rises in the cost of basics such as domestic bills for fuel and water.

These things, combined with three decades of downward pressure on wages, do make a serious difference to what many people now have available to spend on food, with cuts beginning to bite.

Add into that that many people believe the con that highly processed food is more convenient than fresh and that they do not have the time to cook properly on a regular basis – and even that for some people, where they live is a dessert in terms of decent, fresh food choices.

There are also cases of homes – bedsits etc – where there is no kitchen.

Indeed, in recent years, some of the new flats being built in London with the target market of young and trendy professionals do not even have space for a proper oven, but are designed with just a microwave in mind.

In Joanna Blythman’s Bad Food Britain, she tells a really rather amusing story about a developer who built a series of holiday homes in the UK for foreign visitors. But it all hit a snag when such visitors arrived to find only a microwave and no proper cooking facilities. But that’s a mindset that exists – a mindset that believes that nobody really cooks or wants to.

After all, when Iceland, say, offers boxes of party food at £1 each, it’s easy to see how people would think it far cheaper than anything they could hope to make.

Still, at least Jo Swinson, the minister for equalities and women, was speaking a little bit of sense when, at the end of the tail end of last year, she called on magazines not to publish faddy diets that promised miracle weight loss.

It didn't go remotely far enough, but it was at least an acknowledgement that the problem is not limited just to the individual.

Personal responsibility is a good thing and to be encouraged. I doubt anyone would suggest otherwise.

But a great deal of the current talk about that is actually just a cover – in a Victorianesque language of morality – for ignoring any sense of corporate responsibility, which is precisely the area where a government that actually works for the whole electorate should be acting.

But that might just tale the biscuit.

No comments:

Post a Comment