Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Feckless State And Celebrating Cake

Conservatives like to talk about the “nanny state”, and shake their fists at the sky as their mouths foam with rage whenever they perceive that someone better informed is attempting to tell them what to do.

I have a peculiar fascination with Tories who comment on health, much like my bizarre compulsion to order a custard slice when one is available in a cafe. In both cases it starts out as fun but then I feel decidedly queasy afterwards and remind myself to avoid a repeat of the situation.

You see, when it comes to poor public health the instinct of a right-winger isn’t just to bridle at the prospect of a Nanny State intervening, it’s to actively encourage the roll-out of a Feckless State that aimlessly flops about when there are people in need. Why bother addressing a problem when instead you can get on your high horse and judge people?

The latest bid for fecklessness comes for Conservative health bod Jackson Carlaw who is appalled at 5,600 Scots youngsters a year getting healthy weight interventions. On the one hand he describes obesity as “the next great public health challenge” yet on the other happily wags a finger to warn that it is “an issue of personal discipline and responsibility.” Little Archie’s a bit overweight? Well, it’s his own fault. What’s that? He’s only five and can’t possibly control the obesogenic environment that surrounds him? Nonsense. He just needs to buck up a bit, the slacker.

The healthy weight interventions that Carlaw uses to make his argument for a feckless state are of course the tip of the obesity iceberg. Our Bairn is due to start P1 in a few weeks and as part of the preparations we’ve been given some complicated looking charts to keep track of her weight. By all accounts whenever a child is found to be overweight – that is, unhealthy – the parents don’t take kindly when it’s pointed out to them. There is probably a more subtle way to manage these interventions but at heart they’re well-intended.
The big challenge is to shift the unhealthy culture we’ve developed in our society, where it’s OK to eat crap and move our bodies as little as possible. You walk to school and your dad cycles to work? Loser! You have carrots for a snack rather than a second can of Monster? What a dweeb.

Even at this time of sporting frenzy we see unhealthy products happily associated with muscular, good-looking glory. We may have impishly celebrated our fondness for chocolate-coated mallow teacakes and caffeinated sugary drinks in the opening ceremony but should Barr’s really be sponsoring the whole gig?
And when the baton came through town a few weeks’ back it was accompanied by a generous breakfast for the kids, comprising pain au chocolate, pancakes and other sweet treats. Would have it been so hard to hand out bananas?
Breakfast of sporting champions, apparently

Recent stats show our unhealthy tastes aren’t changing, so I’d suggest Carlaw’s on a hiding to nothing with his “personal discipline” schtick. Growth areas are fizzy drinks other than cola (ie, caffeinated sugary Irn Bru or caffeinated sugary energy drinks), hot chocolate, fancy coffees and pies and sausage rolls.

Scottish teens are also buying into the eating out of home market at an earlier age, with little evidence that they can eat healthily when doing so – chips and cola is the default setting. Upsize meal deals are also much more common in Scotland.

Then there’s the issue of kids streaming down the street at lunchtime for fast food or crisps and chocolate in the supermarket. Again, personal discipline is a pointless argument here. The siting and opening hours of these food providers is a matter for local authorities, yet we as voters and taxpayers choose not to make a fuss when they give planning permission to supermarkets next to schools and grant licenses for places offering fatty sugary treats during school hours.

Occasionally the idea of taxing unhealthy food and drink comes up, a prospect that causes apoplexy among the Feckless State promoters. Of course the alternative is to simply make it much clearer how unhealthy some products are – think of those gross images on cigarette packets. Why not an equivalent image on cans of pop or at least bold lettering explaining the sugar content?

As well as preparing for P1 by taking a look at the Bairn’s weight we’ve been advised to send her to class with her own water bottle; very sensible given the obvious benefits to concentration and health from regular hydration. But pause for a moment. When she’s older and if she chooses to go down the street with her mates for lunch where would she fill up her bottle? She couldn’t. Where’s the demand for public drinking taps and why isn’t there an incentive for local shops to provide them? It’s all part of the culture shift the state could achieve but which rhetoric about personal discipline won’t.

It’s also tempting to think if you make the healthy stuff cheaper people will buy more of it but I’ve seen studies which show people simply spend their savings on gulch.

On our recent campervan holiday around the South of Scotland we indulged the Bairn (and ourselves) in the usual treats – ice cream, cake and so on but the real treat for all of us was a visit to a PYO farm near Kelso. We harvested the most amazing strawberries and raspberries, living off them for days. No meringues or cream required!

This leads me to wonder why we don’t do more to celebrate the great fruit and veg we have here in Scotland. Think of any celebration and sugar will be involved. Chocolate now smothers Christmas advent calendars, Valentine’s Day, mother and father’s days, Easter and even Halloween. I’ll admit I’m partial to black bun in the depths of winter but where we have healthy and exciting foods we should be making more of them.

Sadly strawberries are now synonymous with Wimbledon rather than the Borders or Tayside; native apples have a day a year but the other 364 we’re crunching boring Braeburns from New Zealand; fish come and go but are undeniably healthy and simple to cook – I live in Musselburgh yet the shellfish that gives my town its name seems to be something only specialists seek out.

As a parent it’s easy to assume bairns don’t like veg but our experience is that a bit of fun can win the day. We stick butternut squash into soup and call it A Squash and A Squeeze Soup (Julia Donaldson will surely sue), carrots and peppers are great for scooping up hummus and other dips, and cucumbers have become snozzcumbers thanks to Roald Dahl’s BFG.
Snozzcumbers. Lovely in gin. Maybe not for the Bairn.

But the real challenge will be post-Games. For next week the Great British Bake Off is back on our screens. A clear example of the state foisting unhealthy obsessions upon us! Of course, being inspired to create chaos in the kitchen with the Bairn to perfect the occasional lemon drizzle cake is a world away from daily gorging on biscuits, Irn Bru and sausage suppers.

It could even be argued that putting home-baking on such a pedestal is a way of encouraging that good food culture we’re missing. I’d rather we were fretting over soggy bottoms than the bottom line of our NHS obesity bill, and blaming on it on wee Archie’s lack of discipline.