The Sunday Times

June 27th, 2010

Today, class, we will throw away the poison in our lunchboxes

An obese child is a disgrace to its parents. To see young boys and girls wobbling along the pavements, unable to run, with puffy cheeks, piggy eyes and chafing thighs, deprived of youth, strength and health, condemned by their toxic flab to a sickly life in the underclass, is to watch a national horror story developing before our eyes.

It is a sight that is becoming ever more common in this supposedly sophisticated country. Last week Datamonitor, an independent research company, reported that British children were now getting fat almost twice as fast as American children, eating more than double the amount of snacks, sweets, chocolates and crisps, and gobbling more sugary breakfast foods, ready meals and ice cream. More snacks and ice cream than the lard-butt Americans!

The result is that more than one in three British children between 5 and 13 years old are already overweight or obese. By 2014, 38.6% of British children are likely to be overweight or obese — a rapid increase, if the prediction is correct.

It is a misery in itself for a child to be fat or obese, particularly in a time of obsession with physical perfection and fitness sports. Even worse, obesity means ill-health — diabetes with kidney failure, blindness and amputation, coronary artery disease, joint problems, mobility difficulties and a great deal more. It is wrong to allow children to be subjected to this lifelong self-loathing and sickness: even the most ardent of libertarians would agree that parents should not be allowed to do it.

To be fair to the parents of obese children, it should be admitted that it is hard and expensive to provide a healthy diet. For that reason, fat is a class issue. Rich children are rarely fat, let alone obese; their parents have the time, the money and the will to feed them well. What many children (and adults) like is what is worst for them and, as it happens, usually cheapest and easiest — biscuits, cakes, crisps, fatty snacks, deepfried nuggets, chips and takeaways, all filled with addictive salt, sugar and trans fats, which are sometimes even more addictive in combination. The phrase junk food doesn’t begin to describe such stuff; it ought, along with sugary, fizzy drinks and calorific fruit-style juices, to be called poison.

Just as much to blame as the parents, if not more, are some mass-market food manufacturers. Last week the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the National Health Service watchdog, said — quite rightly and all too belatedly — that trans fats should be eliminated from food in England; other parts of Britain should follow this lead. Trans fats are partly hydrogenated vegetable oils that have the magical effect of making food seem more appetising and longer-lasting; they turn oily foods into semi-solid foods with an extended shelf life.

Found in items such as biscuits, cakes and fast foods, they have no nutritional value but can raise levels of cholesterol in the blood. Clearly, getting rid of this artificial poison by law would be a good idea, though it is probably impossible, given the strength of the food-manufacturing lobby.

Ofsted issued a report on school dinners last week, warning that two in five schools in poor areas are failing to meet requirements for a balanced diet. The schools’ attempts to ensure healthy eating are being undermined by pupils bringing in unhealthy packed lunches, and Ofsted recommends head teachers do more to monitor what each child eats and make recommendations to parents. Of course, one of the tabloids immediately attacked “the lunchbox snoopers”. Ofsted admitted many head teachers are reluctant to go in for such monitoring, for fear of being “patronising”.

The obvious truth is that head teachers ought to be not less but a great deal more patronising. They ought to make it their priority to ensure that at school, at least, every child eats healthy food.

I can never understand why schools give children such freedom about food. When I was young, a time when overweight children were extremely rare, there was none. Every child had to eat the same thing at lunchtime, including horrible beetroot, raw onion and stew with lentils, unless there was a religious or medical reason why not. No snacks were allowed. Milk was compulsory; otherwise there was only water to drink. And nobody was allowed to leave the school premises at any time to buy their own food.

Head teachers today could do a great thing for tomorrow’s adults by forcing children to avoid bad food and snacking all day at school. That would mean at least some of their youthful hours were free of calorific sugar rushes and addictive substances.

It is true that it is not cheap to put together a healthy packed lunch. But schools could help, not least by teaching everyone about nutrition. And, reluctant though I am to put up with interference from any quango, I think child obesity is serious enough to justify Ofsted’s recommendations. Besides, apart from those people so poor they are entitled to free school lunches, it ought to be possible for parents to afford to feed their children at lunchtime; they do so in the holidays.

Surely almost the first duty of a parent to a child is to feed it adequately. The first call on child-benefit money — £20.30 a week for a first child and £13.40 for each sibling — must be to feed them something better than toxic junk food. After all, child benefit is meant for the benefit of children.

Speaking of child benefit, there is one obvious way to ensure the poorest children do get to school regularly and on time (and with any luck eat well there). It is to make payment of the benefit conditional on each child’s school attendance. Any no-show in the morning without a good reason would mean no child benefit for mum.

Admirers of George Orwell will recall his contempt for the stupidity of insisting that poor people should give up cigarettes and sugary tea in favour of raw carrots and brown bread. There is something insulting in suggesting that people living harsh lives should deprive themselves of their few pleasures. All the same, they should not deprive their children of good food, or poison them with bad food, and there can be few people so desperately poor in Britain that they cannot afford a hard-boiled egg — or tuna — sandwich, a chunk of cheddar with an apple or a tomato, and some vegetable sticks, especially if supplied cheaply at school.

Their poverty is one of aspiration, even for their own children’s health, and that is why someone outside the family ought to step in, to rescue those children from the blighted life of obesity.