Sunday, December 17, 2006

Britain: The "One size fits all" battle of the lunchbox

Parents are quite capable of feeding their children - despite what the government's School Food Trust would have us believe.

It’s bad enough having Jamie Oliver telling us how to feed our children without another celebrity chef joining in. But in January, Prue Leith, cookery writer and restaurateur, takes up her position as chair of the School Food Trust. ‘This is the most important job I have ever had,’ she said on her appointment. ‘I believe we can really change attitudes through the trust’s mission to help schools teach every pupil about food and nutrition and to give them cooking lessons.

The School Food Trust is yet another government-knows-best initiative set up to propagate myths about diet and intervene into areas where government should fear to tread. It’s website states as fact the horrors of the epidemic of obese children. In fact, the level of obesity is generally overstated (see Fattened statistics, by Peter Marsh) and the solutions are generally worse than the ‘problem’ (see Stop bullying fat kids, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

The one thing we do know is that people are living longer and healthier than ever before. The mortality rate for five year olds fell by 98 per cent from 1901 to 2001. In 1901, the UK average life expectancy was 46 years for men, and 50 years for women. In 2001 this had risen to 76 years for men and 81 years for women. Hardly doomsday scenarios.

As a parent who is the intended recipient of such initiatives, what makes my blood boil is they reveal exactly what the government thinks of me. Here is what actually happens. Parents want their children to be happy and healthy. They want their children to eat food that will make them strong and grow. Parents are also pragmatic with their children. They would rather their children ate something rather than nothing (an admirable idea, I hope you’ll agree) and so work out what that means. This might mean a whole host of different things, from mini pizzas to sweet potatoes, because children all have their individual tastes and quirks.

The School Food Trust site however assumes that parents are complete idiots and then goes from there. For example, one of the factsheets for parents is on the sticky subject of the humble packed lunch. The factsheet tells us ignorant parents that ‘packing a lunch can be done in five minutes before school. Or, if you’re usually pushed for time, pack it the night before and put it in the fridge.’ Thanks for that because we’d obviously never be able to manage without such words of advice. With that sort of view of how impotent we are, it is amazing that the children in question have lived long enough to go to school to have a packed lunch. How did we know not to immerse our children in boiling hot water when bathing them as infants? However did we manage to heat up their baby food?

After assuming we have so little intelligence, the site then continues in a patronising vein to advise us not to put the same thing in our children’s lunchbox every day. ‘Try to have a different type of fruit every day - don’t always pick an orange and an apple, why not try kiwi, mango, grapes, pear, chunks of melon or small packets of dried fruit.’

So, we’re apparently so useless we can’t even work out when and how to make our kids’ lunches but somehow we have the time to wander around sourcing a variety of fruits. Nor does it stop at fruit. There are all sorts of interesting breads we should search for, too. Examples given to put in our children’s lunchboxes are pittas, bagels, baguettes, ciabatta, rice crackers, rolls, wraps - anything but the humble white loaf which somehow has assumed the moral status of heroin.

To be fair, the School Food Trust is not alone in deciding they know better than parents. That other great government-funded institution, the BBC, has decided that mother does not know best. The BBC’s ‘Big Challenge’ is to transform the state of the lunchbox as we know it. As with the School Food Trust, bog standard white sliced bread is the loaf that dare not speak its name. Any old pitta, bagel or wrap will do in place of Sunblest or Mothers Pride. Once again, parents are meant to be sourcing a whole range of products from pasta-based salads to small packs of nuts and seeds.

At one point, it occurs to the author of this advice, nutritionist Lyndel Costain, that children may not rejoice when being offered a bit of pasta and a few nuts to sustain them through the school day. But never fear! There is more sound advice to dole out to us stupid parents. ‘Involve them in lunchbox planning’ or ‘give them a star’ if they try a ‘new, healthier lunchbox food’. After five stars ‘give them a small reward, such as… [wait for it] ... a family walk’!

Please! My 4 year old and 7 year old are involved in lunchbox planning in that they are very sure of what they like and don’t like and a packet of seeds, however much planned, will not be eaten. And a family walk, for my kids at least, is not an incentive to look with delight on a vegetable stick with a dip but an onerous activity they are dragged on under great duress.

If it sounds like I have a personal axe to grind, I do. In my children’s primary school they have embraced the healthy eating agenda with a vengeance. This includes inspecting the children’s lunchboxes and giving awards to the child who brings the ‘healthiest’ lunch to school, while telling those who have biscuits in their box to bring an apple instead.

Perhaps I should think myself lucky compared to the parents of little Ryan Stupples, who was excluded from the school dining hall and made to eat in the headmaster’s office for having - shock, horror - two snack items in his lunchbox. The headmaster told the Daily Telegraph: ‘We take healthy eating very seriously and everyone is aware of our new policies.’ The thought of a 10 year old boy being told by their school that they’ve done something naughty because of what mum and dad put in their lunchbox sends shivers down the spine.

If the lunchbox inspections are bad, the battle for young hearts, minds and stomachs is even worse. When I went to see an assembly that my daughter’s class staged for parents, the tour de force was six year old girls reading their poems about healthy eating. I found myself feeling queasy as they told us about how you must not eat fatty things, because it is important to be thin! The following week there was yet another healthy eating day which involved trying ‘healthy’ foods. Discussing this with friends in the parents forum that I run, it was clear that everyone had their own little horror story to tell of their child’s school cracking down on contraband lunchbox items or brainwashing them about the dangers of their food.

Call me old fashioned but shouldn’t school be trying to develop knowledge and imagination, whether through fantastic literary tales or inspiring science? Why instead are we infecting such young children with an obsession with their bodies?

Parents will remain pragmatic and keep focused on doing what is best for their children, giving them what they will eat, and sometimes getting them to stretch the boundaries of what that means. But at the same time, parents shouldn’t be complacent about the patronising messages coming from something like the School Food Trust. These messages show that the government holds us in high contempt and doesn’t like it when we don’t bow before their codes and guidelines, that we can work out for ourselves what is best for our children. It has imbued food stuffs with moral characteristics - sliced white bread bad, ciabatta good - and it wants to ensure that morality is enforced.

Parents: you can expect plenty of arguments with schools over how to feed your children in the coming months. Stand by what is right for your child. Hold onto your children’s lunchboxes and let the battle commence!



So people dining out in New York City will be protected from unwittingly -- or even wittingly -- consuming foods containing trans fats. Trans fats are what you get with partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings, which keep foods like French fries from getting soggy and margarine solid at room temperature.

Trans fats will be banned in the city's restaurants and undoubtedly before long in Chicago and other places because health authorities say they raise cholesterol and cause heart disease.

Ironically, trans fats became popular in food preparation as people were being scared away from the saturated fats in butter and lard. I'm beginning to think the diet authorities, who unfortunately are close to government power, aren't as sure about things as they claim. (This is worth reading.) They told us (on the basis of evidence that has been questioned in many quarters) that saturated fats are bad for our health. So we turned to polyunsaturated and trans fats, only to be told later that they aren't so great either. This sounds familiar. Oh yes. Heroin was developed to help people break their morphine habits. Then methadone had to be invented to break the heroin habit. Now I read that kids are using methadone for kicks. We'd probably prefer they consumed trans fat.

I don't know what, if anything, trans fats will do to you. I am not a physician or a nutritionist. Maybe they are as bad as the most vocal health "experts" say. But I want to point out two things before moving on to the political implications. First, there is some reason for skepticism about the indictment of saturated fat. (This article is illuminating about the political roots of government diet recommendations.) And second, former Cato analyst Radley Balko points out that as consumption of trans fats has increased over the last two decades, heart disease has decreased and life-expectancy has lengthened. What are we to make of that?

Why a Ban?

Whatever the truth is, this is shouldn't be a political issue. People are perfectly capable of keeping up with the latest dizzying news on what's good for you and what's not without the government banning things. Earlier generations of Americans would have been appalled by New York City's action. But now many people think nothing of demanding prohibition of anything they dislike. And most of the others accept it.

It's as though the process of prohibition meant nothing. But it means a great deal. Let's assume we won't miss trans fats and that healthy substitutes will be easily found and cheap to use. So what? Prohibition is objectionable in itself. If government has the power to ban trans fats in the name of health (an example of what Thomas Szasz calls the Therapeutic State), it will necessarily have the power to prohibit -- or, yes, require -- other things in the name of health. Power won't be contained, and sooner or later it will wash over something the trans-fat opponents don't like.

Why is government looking after our health? To keep the price of medical care down, perhaps. But that's only a concern of government because it pays for a lot medical care (using our money of course). And many people want it (that is, the taxpayers) to pay for it all. When government first intervened in medical matters, we were assured it would not interfere with our lives. Many people believed that story. Now we know better. With the government's medical budgets running wild and its programs facing bankruptcy, control of our decisions has become a matter of fiscal conservatism. The scary thing is that people seem willing to give up freedom to preserve and extend the subsidies. The choice is between government responsibility for medical services or freedom to make decisions. In the long run we can't have both.

We have to drop the idea that if government doesn't protect us from things like trans fats, we are defenseless. Have you read a food label lately? Virtually every product boasts it has no trans fats. Private activities are educating the public (assuming the science is right), and profit-seeking food companies are responding. A margarine company, Smart Balance, has been touting its trans-fat-free product for years. Restaurants would do the same. In the meantime, concerned customers can ask questions or avoid situations of uncertainty.

Yes, that means some inconvenience. But it'll be a lot less inconvenient than the impositions of the Therapeutic State.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). For a summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and no lasting harm from them has ever been shown.


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