23 August 2012
The eating habits of
young Scots appalled
my guests from Africa
The healthy Zamians think we should exercise more
I have just put 12 young Zambians on a plane back to Africa this morning. They have been with us for a cultural exchange funded in part by the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council with help from the Argyll artist Jolomo and SCIAF, with whom they did a workshop in Troon about food security.
The Mthunzi and Lilanda Initiative (MALI) is a Scottish registered charity that provides secondary and college education for vulnerable young Zambians. CYEC's support of our cultural exchanges means we can also help the Mthunzi Culture Group and young musicians in Scotland to become global citizens.
Our theme this year has been fitness and food security. We did an 18-mile sponsored walk that raised funds for school fees. We learned about the Forestry Commission's work to create walking, cycling and horseriding areas in our forests. We ate healthy pizza made by Donnie Maclean of Eat Balanced and talked with Mike Lean, professor of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow. We learned to Zumba and took part in a Zumba workshop at the Multiple Sclerosis Centre fun day in Lochgilphead.
The Zambians also put on performances of their traditional dancing and proved themselves expert at the 'Gay Gordons', the 'Dashing White Sergeant' and 'Strip the Willow' at a number of ceilidhs. They barely broke sweat.
But like Kenneth Roy (21 August) they were deeply concerned by the fitness levels of some of the young Scots they met. That's not to say they didn't enjoy fish and chips and the odd Coke or Pepsi, or that they didn't try the home baking. It was an exchange, and they were willing to try Scottish food.
But they were happiest when giving impressions of a plague of locusts hovering over the fruit bowls of their host families. My kitchen floor may take some time to emerge from the finely chopped cabbage that escaped from the mountains of the stuff we cooked with onions and tomatoes to go along with their nsima (the maize dish that is their staple filler). They can't get enough cabbage, spinach and yes, even broccoli.
Jonathan and Lovemore told me fervently that their young Scottish counterparts should exercise more. At home, most of the Zambian delegates have known hunger. They know what it is not to have food for three meals a day. They know what poverty and food insecurity induced by climate change and imbalanced trade deals can do to struggling families. But that doesn't mean they want to OD on burgers or any of the other 'treats' made by the sponsors of the London Olympics.
We are born with some eating habits, but some are thrust upon us in a variety of ways. The sponsors of the Olympics didn't do that for philanthropic reasons and ironically, as Zambia's economy begins to improve, there will be plenty of burger bars pushing their deadly wares and the chip will outweigh nsima in every sense. No marketing company is advertising mealie meal from the shiny electronic hoardings on the posh side of Lusaka but they're sure as hell hard-selling junk food and drinks.
Education is another bit of the jigsaw. The Zambians could tell Professor Lean about proteins and carbs and how the body uses them. It may be on the curriculum here but I'm not hearing teenagers spouting it. And then there are the socio-economic factors.
Some 15 to 20 years ago, Professors Mike Lean and Phil Hanlon were telling me the same things about food as Kenneth Roy lists in SR and I was writing about a child obesity problem being just around the corner. Now it's here. Is that just because we didn't listen? Or, as campaigner Cathy McCormack points out in 'The Wee Yellow Butterfly', which I co-wrote with her, because there is a problem of food accessibility in some areas of Scottish society, just as there is in the developing world?
It doesn't matter where you live on this planet; you have to have money to buy food and money to access it. The Zambian villager whose crops wash away in flash floods or don't germinate because of drought can't afford to take a bus into town to buy food to put in his family's bellies and his children become malnourished. One in seven people go to bed hungry every night.
The mother in Easterhouse surviving on benefits can't afford the bus fares to get to a shop that sells fresh produce, which she probably can't afford anyway. Her children will get the cheap ready-meals available within walking distance. Three out of seven Scottish children are in the overweight zone.
'Fat' is not about responding to finger wagging but I'm not sure we have a clue how to tackle it. Zambians, as the Mthunzi Culture Group explained in their performance poem, eat nsima and cabbage not because they like it but because it is the only food they can afford. Many Scots eat too much fat and sugar because these are the basic ingredients in the food they can afford.
According to Maslow's pyramid of needs, until you've sorted out the basics of food and shelter, you can't progress and reach your potential. It worries me that by providing only the worst kind of food, our children are getting as poor a deal as those in the third world.
We had a cross-cultural cook-in on the Zambian youngsters' last weekend. The traditional Scottish food was inevitably (but healthily) herring, mince, haggis, venison, boiled new potatoes, mashed neeps – and we all polished off the Zambians' enhanced cabbage. There wasn't a burger in sight and there wasn't a whimper from going on 30 teenagers.
Real food has to be affordable, accessible, and folk need to know how to cook it. The fat cats of the food industry have to help that happen.
Marian Pallister is a writer and founder of the Mthunzi and