Dear Jamie Oliver, Obesity is Not the Problem, it’s the Symptom

Jamie Oliver is under fire (again) this week for his latest apparent attack on the poor. In an effort to halve ‘childhood obesity’ in Scotland by 2030, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed during a meeting with Jamie Oliver that Scotland will ban price-cutting and two-for-one style promotions on sweets, crisps and other foods which are high in salt, fat and sugar.

Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef worth around £400 million, has been in the press a lot recently for his extreme classism – sorry, ‘concern for the nation’s health’ – when it comes to dictating what people should and shouldn’t eat. In his wisdom, our Jamie has decided (and alarmingly, governments appear to agree with him) that the way to stop people eating unhealthy food is to make it more expensive.

Which really begs the question: what kind of dystopian nightmare world are we living in?

Increasing the price of ‘unhealthy’ food instead of lowering the price of ‘healthy’ food is a solution you’d think only a Tory could come up with. It takes a special kind of ignorant, privileged w*nker to look at the state of the country, nod sagely, and say “we should price the poor out of the only food they can get access to”. Banning 2-4-1 offers on pizzas is the up-their-own-arse solution that addresses entirely the wrong problem, while completely exacerbating the real issue.

“The story the data tells is a different (and much more concerning) one that those pushing ‘make pizza more expensive’ initiatives tell.”

Jamie Oliver and his ilk are ‘nobly’ fighting the horror that is ‘childhood obesity’. According to the National Child Measurement Programme 2016-2017 (the latest report available), “almost a quarter of Reception children were overweight including obese. In Year Six it was over a third”.

We’ll just take a moment here to clarify that the National Child Measurement Programme uses the Body Mass Index (BMI) as means of measuring obesity, and therefore, is a means of measuring not much at all. As we’ve discussed time and time again, BMI is largely bullsh*t and so widely disproved and discredited that it’s astounding we still rely on it as any kind of measure of health. There is only ONE reason left for using this scale – it means we can quickly categorise more people as obese.

The report breaks down the findings by categorising the children by age, sex, ethnicity, and where they live, and the story the data tells is a different (and much more concerning) one that those pushing ‘make pizza more expensive’ initiatives tell.

“Children from minority backgrounds are more likely to be classed as obese by the government.”

In reception, there was a significantly higher percentage of black children classified as obese (14.8%) compared to white children (9.1%), mixed race children (10.2%), Asian children (9.9%), and Chinese children (5.8%). When these children reach Year Six, white children are the least likely to be classified as obese (18.1%) compared to black children who are the most likely (29.5%).

The report also had some findings on the prevalence of obesity in children according to how affluent an area they lived in. The report states that “obesity prevalence for children living in the most deprived areas was more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas for both reception and year six” – 5.8% of children in the least deprived area compared to 12.7% in the most deprived area.

There’s more. Children living in more urban areas were also more likely to be classified as obese, with the gap starting relatively small in Reception years (8.4% of children living in fringe towns, versus 9.9% living in urban areas) and jumping when they reach Year Six (16.3% in towns, 20.9% in cities).

Are we starting to see a pattern here?

Children from minority backgrounds are more likely to be classed as obese by the government, as well as children living in more urban areas, and those living in areas classed as ‘deprived’. Thanks to our handy class system, generous Tory government and rampant Brexit-era racism, these are also the children most likely to come from poor families.

New measures in Scotland would see a ban on promotions on food high in salt, sugar and fat.

Obesity is not the problem in our society. Obesity is the symptom ­– a symptom of a sick, corrupted society that not only completely misunderstands and misrepresents the link between obesity and health, but one that crucially misunderstands the link between food and finances.

When poorer people rely on accessible, cheap food, it’s because their options are incredibly limited. While cheap food is not always the best for our bodies, it’s sometimes all people can afford. Ask me any day of the week whether I think it’s healthier for a child to eat a 2-4-1 pizza or nothing at all, and I can guarantee you my answer will be the pizza, every single time. It should be anyone’s guaranteed answer.

Let’s say for a minute that we do raise the price of currently cheap, and less healthy, food. What would happen? Well, a study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford found that “adding 10% to the price of chocolate, confectionery, cakes and biscuits may reduce purchases by around 7%”. Also, interestingly (and somewhat alarmingly), “increasing the price of chocolate snacks was estimated to bring about significant reductions in purchases across most food categories.”

But crucially, the study found that “The potential effects of price increases were greatest in the low-income group,” and in many areas, “no such reductions for the high-income group were seen.”

Just to make that abundantly clear: increasing the price of ‘unhealthy’ foods will overwhelmingly only affect poorer people.

“If they had raised prices on sugary and fatty foods when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have eaten.”

Kat (@sibylpain) spoke this week about her own experience as a child from an impoverished, single parent family, and gave permission for her story to be retold on The Nopebook:

“[My dad] worked full time, and with two young kids this meant a lot of money was spend on our childcare. So that’s more money gone, when we barely had enough to live on cheap food as it was. […] Even fruit and veg was too expensive, so my brother and I had to take multivitamins in order to get a lot of the things we needed.”

Kat’s experience also highlights how lack of money isn’t the only issue that affects how impoverished families access food. “When you’re a young father with severe depression, working countless hours in a tiring job, coming home to two young kids while having to fear for your life because your ex wife leaves you 150 threatening voicemails a day and keeps violating her restraining order, going as far as to attempt to run you over, have your kids abducted and smash the glass in your door, all while struggling intensely financially, would YOU have the energy to cook a nutritious meal from scratch?

“At the end of the day, me and my brother had no significant health problems caused by our diet,” Kat finishes. “My dad always tried his absolute hardest. Most working class parents are incredibly conscious about the wellbeing of their children. […] If they had raised prices on sugary and fatty foods when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have eaten. Plain and simple.”

“What the likes of Jamie Oliver are doing is pointing the hose at a scented candle while a building burns down behind them.”

Even if we pretend, just for a second, that punishing people for being obese or even unhealthy is an acceptable and totally humane thing to do (for clarity; it’s f*cking not), because all of this relies on the BMI as means of measuring obesity, it means not only are we punishing poorer people for the very fact that they are poor, but their ‘obesity’ is both questionable as fact, and could have absolutely nothing to do with their health.

It’s worth repeating; all the statistics we see around childhood obesity rely on categorisations that have been made by a capitalist society that knows it can make money off of people believing there is something wrong with their bodies. It relies on a measurement that was never intended to be used to determine health, and punishes the most vulnerable members of society for things that are beyond their control – and now, that punishment is being aimed squarely at children.

What the likes of Jamie Oliver (who has no shortage of foods high in salt, fat and sugar on his website – funny that) are doing is pointing the hose at a scented candle while a building burns down behind them. With all the information available to you, by making cheap, accessible food more expensive, your aim is either to make poor people poorer, therefore making the problem you have created worse – or, alternatively, you literally starve the country out of its classification as ‘obese’.

So, Jamie… which one is it?

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