Jayne Dowle: Folly in a trolley if healthy diet is too costly for poor

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I’VE heard all the excuses for not eating a healthy diet, the latest being that it is too expensive according to research from Cambridge University.

Healthy food can cost more than three times as much as junk food, the research has found, and it’s getting dearer every year.

Apparently, 1,000 calories made up from healthy items, such as lean salmon, yoghurts and tomatoes, costs an average of £7.49. The same calorie intake from less healthy items, such as pizza, beef burgers and doughnuts, can be purchased for an average of £2.50.

Sorry to bamboozle you with figures, but the gap between the two 1,000 calorie baskets is now £4.99 when it was only £3.88 a decade ago.

It doesn’t take an academic study to work out that people on low incomes are increasingly more likely to opt for the cheaper option, thus adding to the nation’s growing obesity crisis and contributing towards the estimated £5.8bn annually it costs the NHS to deal with health problems caused by eating too much of the wrong kind of food.

I want you to look behind the statistics now and think for a moment about what is really going on here.

The researchers, from the university’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research, call for healthy food to be subsidised by the Government to make it more affordable for those on low incomes.

There is a good intention behind this, but surely it would be unworkable on a large scale. How would the funding operate? Would it only apply in certain shops and outlets? How would ministers persuade the big supermarkets to get on board? And how would they draw the line over who would be able to claim? Just families on benefits or everyone on a low income? And why should those who try to feed their families healthily be made to subsidise, through their taxes, those who can’t be bothered to think about it?

See what I mean. It’s a good idea, but it’s too complicated and as politically sensitive as a red-hot chilli pepper. If I was in charge, with my modest O-level in Home Economics, here’s what I would do...

First of all, I would tell local councils to restrict the opening of new takeaway restaurants, because these are the lazy parent’s first port of call.

Next, I would bring cookery classes into every state school in the country, ideally from primary level. I have it on the evidence from my very own kitchen that once children start to understand the building blocks of decent food, they start to appreciate it more. Since my son started cooking at school, he’s taken much more of an interest in the food on his plate. He won’t even contemplate a ready meal, not that I offer them very often. He wants to know where his meat comes from, and what ingredients go 
into each dish which comes out of the kitchen.

He’s lucky, in a way, because he sees a family meal being prepared more or less from scratch every day. Not every child in his class does. And I know that sadly some parents are beyond reasoning with and will continue to buy rubbish just because it’s the easier option.

However, if children are shown an alternative, there is a chance that they might grow up to reverse the trend that their mothers and fathers have set. And, of course, they would pass on good eating habits to their own children.

That’s not to say that irresponsible adults should be written off as a lost cause, however. There has to be a way of persuading those who blow their weekly food budget on rubbish to see the error of their ways. I’m glad that I’m not in charge of this particular publicity campaign though, because it is notoriously difficult to promote the healthy eating message without coming across as deeply patronising. This would be entirely counter-productive and serve only to alienate those it is trying to reach.

What I would do is reverse the emphasis on trying to “teach” individuals to change their food-shopping habits. Instead, I would put pressure on supermarkets, producers and all those concerned with the business of food in this country to demystify the whole process of what we eat. It is too polarised, between “good” food, for which read “expensive”, and “bad” food, for which read “cheap”.

Although the figures from Cambridge University tell their own story, I think that the issue of decent food has become far too tangled up with the issue of affordability. It’s about more than cost. It’s about reversing bad habits which have set in over generations. It’s about persuading people that it doesn’t have to be expensive organic produce to be good for you. It’s about going back to basics and showing that simple dishes can be prepared quickly and cheaply, and here I’d make special mention of TV cookery shows which make producing simple tomatoes on toast look as complicated and costly as caviar risotto.

In short, it’s time to stop making a meal out of the matter of what we eat.