In France, there is a distinctive culture of French food that is undeniable, food made with pride, using exquisite ingredients and techniques. There are world renowned culinary schools and regional specialities. To not experience the food, is to not truly experience France. Produce is affordable and accessible. Food is part of French life in a natural way, a country with strong rural traditions and great respect for food from the farm.
But now in France, traditionally the land of the slim, the number of obese people has doubled in the past 15 years to reach seven million. Yes, while we have been fecklessly stuffing ourselves and they are now faced with exactly the same problem of obesity as the rest of Europe and indeed the developed world. How to stop the spread? The French do not eat thoughtlessly. This was the secret to their success. I had visited there last in November 2011 and was shocked to notice a shift in the status quo. The habits of the French that had kept them slim were slipping — being replaced by the hallmarks of the global scourge of obesity. Parts of eastern France exhibit far higher rates of obesity than the well-to-do residents of Paris. Levels are higher in rural areas, where people drive everywhere. Obesity, as everywhere else, is also a bigger problem among the poor.
The government of France acted swiftly with vending machines being removed from schools. The consumption of unnecessary calories is one of the primary reasons for weight gain and any drink, other than water, must be the main supplier of those. The government aims to bring out a 'traffic light' system and has advertising and campaigns already in place.
We have been fatter for longer and our Government has proposed, among other things, a similar labelling system; calorie labelling on menus; and, of course, a tax. This time on fatty, high sugar, and salt foods. The food and drink industry body, Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII ), claims that fat and sugar taxes could have a negative impact on employment in the food and drink sector and are unproven in terms of effectiveness in tackling lifestyles. Big food business is profit-driven, supported by corporate lobbies that have little interest in reducing the amount of processed food. In any case I think we all know it is best not left entirely up to the Government. If there is anything the European food chain scandal has shown us, it is that if you do not make it yourself, then you cannot know what is in it. The importance of a return to cooking fresh food and avoiding dependence on high-calorie, processed, food is at the heart of efforts to reduce obesity in Ireland.
Practical online help is everywhere on the topics of budgeting, nutrition, smart shopping, and cooking. A good place to start with is Catriona at Wholesomeireland.ie who herself lives on a very tight budget and blogs all about it here, sometimes even as Gaeilge. The Food Nanny, nutritionist Anna Burns, who you can find on Facebook, is also full of easy advice. But any aspect of our unhealthy food culture has gone beyond the control of individual parents. Needed now are controls on food marketing, higher nutritional standards for foods targeted at children, and State intervention to ensure accessibility of healthy foods, rather than calorie-rich, nutrient-poor, cheaper, foods for those living in poverty. Without these measures, the child (and, later, adult ) obesity epidemic will surely continue.
It is heartening to see schools coming on board with guidelines for school lunches, Bord Bia rolling out programmes like Food Dudes, and gardening in schools; and the HSE supported programme on RTE Operation Transformation has proven to be a nationwide favourite with young and old. The message then for all of us is to get back in the kitchen. If you are a good cook it might not keep you from being overweight, but if you know how to cook it will keep you from being obese. Also, being a country with a proud farming tradition and supreme terroir, we are perfectly equipped to feed ourselves. All of us.
Here in our own little patch on the west coast, give some thought also to our farmers, the real victims in the meat scandal, not by any of their own doing but the greed of others. In order to produce beef they jump through hoops, filling forms and facing many farm inspections with loss of income if their product does not make the grade. These farmers are at the bottom of the chain, making the least from the most intensive work.
Think of the fishermen too, with the potential to create a sustainable, profitable, aquaculture sector. At sea, due to a complicated fish stock and quota balancing act, fishermen are regularly forced to dump dead fish from over quota catches. BIM, a Government agency, has decided to do the 'sensible' thing and add more fish with the proposed salmon cages in Galway Bay. Between the country’s most beautiful tourist attractions, the Burren, the Aran Islands, and Connemara seems like the perfect site for them, or so it seems to think. I do not know a lot about salmon farming, but I know a man who does. You can see the thoughts of Seamus Sheridan, Green Party, on the mega salmon farm planned for Galway Bay at seamussheridan.wordpress.com Read and draw your own conclusions. At what cost, and do we need many more fish in our sea?