An endless diet of government intervention
Health authorities and food campaigners have pursued their pet projects by promoting scare stories about children’s health.
Next week sees the start of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign to change the way children are fed. But while providing children with better meals and facilities at school is a worthy enough aim, lecturing the nation’s parents about how they are setting up their kids for a (short) lifetime of ill-health is simply nauseating.
While campaigners call for more government intervention into our eating habits, it is surely time to call a halt. The last thing we need is a further expansion of schemes and initiatives.
We have been led to believe that we are facing a timebomb of ill-health that can only be defused by changing the way our children eat. That might be justified if children were dropping like flies from disease. In fact, the opposite is true. According to figures for England and Wales, in 1981 there were 30 deaths for every 100,000 children aged between one and 14 years. In 2006, that had more than halved to 14 deaths per 100,000. Death in childhood was rare and has become even rarer in the last 25 years or so.
Are children becoming sicker? Clearly, serious infectious disease is largely a thing of the past. Obesity may be increasing, but obesity is not a disease; at most, it is associated with a number of chronic conditions. The most obvious of these in relation to children is the apparent emergence of type-2 diabetes among children, something previously considered to be a condition of middle age. Yet research published in Diabetes Care in 2007 suggests that type-2 diabetes remains unusual in children under the age of 17. The researchers undertook a year-long survey of 2,665 consultant paediatricians in the UK and Ireland. During this period, 67 cases of type-2 diabetes were reported, all of them in the UK, suggesting an overall incidence of 5.3 cases per million children.
So, type-2 diabetes in children would seem to be, if not a one-in-a-million occurrence, not far off. Furthermore, while there is a strong association between being overweight and type-2 diabetes, the association with ethnic status is worrying. As the authors note: ‘The incidence rates for South Asians and blacks are an alarming 3.5 times and 11 times higher, respectively, than in whites.’ This ethnic differential continues into adulthood. If the government were really serious about tackling type-2 diabetes, it would do better to devote a substantial research effort to understanding this differential rather than lecturing the whole population about our personal habits.
Nor is it the case that there is mass malnutrition among children. According to Family Food 2006, the average UK family is getting all the protein and energy required, plus plenty of vitamins and minerals. The average household now spends just 10 per cent of its income on food and non-alcoholic drinks. Food has never been so readily available and in such variety. Even where children do have rather limited tastes, we should chill out. While nutritionists may be sniffy about about children eating cheeseburger, chips and fish fingers all the time, such foods do actually provide a fair proportion of a child’s nutritional needs. They may not be perfect, but such eating habits are highly unlikely to result in an epidemic of disease, either.
But there is a more fundamental principle at stake: it is not the government’s business to interfere in our personal lives except in the most exceptional circumstances. Yet we are subject to endless health advice both from official sources and through the popular media, from shows like Honey, We’re Killing the Kids to the much-praised but frankly hectoring series by Jamie Oliver on school meals. If that were not enough, that intervention is increasingly direct, with parents receiving letters home about their children’s supposed weight problems and being given strict instructions about what to put in their lunchboxes.
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It seems that the government, the health authorities and a variety of different campaigners see it as their job to overrule parents about how their children should eat. In reality, the vast majority of parents endeavour to get their children to eat well, but in the absence of eating well, they make pragmatic, personal decisions about how to ensure they eat something. Current levels of intervention are unlikely to help matters and are an insult to the decision-making abilities of parents.
If children’s food is a top priority, then make school meals free, or at least cheap, at the point of delivery and give them the time and surroundings to eat them comfortably. That’s not a health strategy, that’s just common decency. If adults would not tolerate being forced to queue up for ages to receive mediocre food in a hall so crowded that there is often nowhere to sit, why should we assume our children should put up with it? And let those meals taste of something; salt in recent years has been treated in school canteens like it is a chemical weapon rather than a fundamental requirement of good cooking. It is noticeable that the new cookbook produced by the government to teach kids how to prepare their own meals avoids salt or sneaks it into recipes in stock. No wonder children are rejecting such bland offerings.
But before the first school bell of the day sounds, and after hometime, it would be far better if the government, the health authorities and the self-appointed guardians of our diets did what children up and down the country do at lunchtime: bugger off.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. This article is based on his speech to the Westminster Education Forum today. He is chairing the session Can GM crops feed the world? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.