COLUMNIST: Campaign for a better deal for our children on the food front

I hope you all had a very enjoyable and relaxing Christmas. I'd also like to think that many of you had what I would refer to as a traditional Christmas featuring plenty of nourishing, home-cooked food.

Thursday, 11th January 2018, 10:33 am
Updated Thursday, 11th January 2018, 10:35 am

Sadly, I fear, for thousand upon thousands of our children Christmas dinner – and indeed every meal they ate over the festivities – would have consisted of what could have been bought ready-prepared (and even pre-cooked) in a box or a packet at the supermarket.

You might have thought even those families who don’t cook much during the course of the year because they say it’s either too difficult or too time-consuming or even – as I have heard - too expensive (and I would take issue with anyone on those points) would want to make an effort at Christmas to ensure what arrived on the table was freshly-picked, bought, prepared and cooked. In fact the opposite appears to happen: Christmas seems to be the time to buy even greater quantities of pre-prepared foods.

I can understand – just – resorting to the freezer cabinets for so-called party foods which may beyond the capabilities of many people to produce (though have they even tried?) but when I see pre-made stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and even gravy on sale my heart really sinks.

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The last generation to get others to cook for them on such a scale were the Victorians. In the 19th century most middle-class families kept servants – but they also kept control of the family diet. Today millions of people are not merely content to allow others to cook for them they entrust them to deliver wholesome, nourishing food. It rarely if ever, seems to occur to them that labour costs must then figure in the calculations when arriving at a retail price and since they are fixed by law then in order to come in under the retailer’s ceiling then economies often have to be made elsewhere – usually in the quality of ingredients and in what the primary producer is paid.

What is undeniable is that our ridiculous and frankly lazy over-reliance on convenience foods has bequeathed us the most obese and unhealthiest children in Europe – and I dread to think what problems and costs they are laying down for the future health service.

Children are literally being poisoned by additives and by huge amounts of hidden salt, sugar and fat and the real tragedy is that as the third generation born into a world of cheap convenience food eating everything – even Christmas dinner – from a bag or a packet appears perfectly normal to them.

What hope has a child got when they are sent off to school with a bag of crisps, a chocolate bar and a sweet fizzy drink to consume on the way in lieu of breakfast? It’s been recognised for centuries that a proper breakfast is necessary at the start of the day yet thousands of families here are now denying their children that very thing.

I read recently of the success of breakfast clubs in schools in some of the more deprived parts of the capital which offer children a decent, balanced meal once they arrive at school. The results are spectacular in terms of improved behaviour and academic performance – to say nothing of the dietary benefits.

But what really shocked me was that many of these operations are having to be financed by charitable donations: a throwback to the days before nationalised health and education services when the better-off would donate to workhouses, alms houses and poor houses in order that the inmates could have a decent meal now and then.

If I have one aim for 2018 it is to campaign as energetically as I can for a better deal for our children on the food front. To help them understand where food comes from and how it is produced. To enable more of them to eat real food, and to learn how to source it and cook it.

And I would urge all farmers – who still produce 60 per cent of everything we eat – to put whatever pressure they can on their MPs to ensure the Government starts to look outside its affluent, Westminster bubble, wakes up to the seriousness of this situation and the horrific problems we are building up further down the line - and determines to turn it into a national issue. And urgently.

Happy New Year.