A year ago we set up a tiny community garden on the verges of our barren car park. Not a great deal grew in the first season, but what we produced we tried to give away, sometimes without success.
“What will I do with it?” asked J as I offered him a bunch of dirty carrots. A few days ago, I got a glimpse inside J’s fridge. Everything was pre-packed, microwave or oven ready, accompanied by step-by-step instructions. J doesn’t cook and he is not alone.
A review for Defra by Best Foot Forward highlighted that one in six people say that they cannot cook. Most of us now cook only one meal a week from basic ingredients. Just one in eight mothers cook from scratch every day and almost all are turning to pre-prepared foods to feed their families. One third of us skip breakfast and as many won’t eat vegetables because they are a hassle to prepare.
Chatting at meals is good for our children and the rest of us, yet one in two meals are eaten alone (a third of us live alone). Three quarters of our food is consumed while doing something else like watching TV.
Best Foot Forward argues that part of the issue is a “plethora of messages around food miles, local food, organic, Fairtrade etc. have generated a degree of market place confusion and consumer dissonance.” Perhaps. What I hear talking to friends and neighbours is that food, especially the preparation of it, is in their peripheral vision. They are among the six in ten of us that say that food is not as important as social activities. People don’t cook any more, they just eat.
This debate is not just about what goes into our mouths, it also concerns what our non-cook culture does to our bodies. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, reducing the quality of life for too many people. Food-related ill health costs the NHS at least £6 billion to treat each year. It even transpires that choosing healthier food is better for the environment.
Of course, food alone is not responsible for our growing weight and declining health. We simply don’t exercise enough. Over the last eight years, the average number of walking trips we make has fallen by more than a quarter.
So what are do we do about this? Should diet and exercise be left to communities and individuals? Is this another issue for schools to pick up where parents fail? What is the role for politicians and government? Do we nanny, nudge, or nonchalantly let the issue pass us by? And if we nanny or nudge, will it be effective?
Perhaps we should just lie back and accept the trend towards a nation of coach potatoes. (This expression that is surely out of date in a nation that doesn’t peel spuds any longer.)
I for one don’t want imperious officials telling me what to eat or drink, or how much to exercise. I think it is illiberal to try to control people’s lifestyles at the level of what they eat and how much they walk. But is such a laissez-faire attitude acceptable in the face of the health problems we are stacking up?
We are experiencing unprecedented longevity but seem determined to undermine it with burgers, pizzas and fried chicken.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.