Scotland’s bad eating habits are the stuff of comedy cliché but the joke’s been too long on us and it’s time to stop laughing. This week, the Food Commission Scotland published their initial plan for a 'nationwide movement for change' which aims to make Scotland a so-called 'Good Food Nation’ by 2025. It's an admirable aspiration, if still a little short on practicalities but, with our eating habits so stubbornly engrained, the meat of our problems will take a long time to cure.
On Sunday afternoon in Lidl supermarket, Maryhill, two reps – promoting the ongoing Healthier Scotland, 'Eat Better Feel Better' campaign with free recipes, leaflets and fridge magnets – were being all but politely ignored by local residents and students alike. It would be easy to mock a Scottish Government promotion that spoonfeeds the public such nuggets of wisdom as: 'write a shopping list to help save time and money’ or 'buy foods that can be used in more than one meal across the week’, but I don’t come to sneer. Scotland has a collective eating disorder and we can all improve our life skills. The handy hints suggested by the 'healthy helpers’ on the Eat Better Feel Better website (all women, mind you, men don’t cook apparently) may be basic and banal but it’s better to be patronised than abandoned.
With the UK government considering a game-changing 'sugar tax’, the Scottish Government knows it needs to be seen to be doing something. Two thirds of Scots are overweight but that doesn’t mean the other third are healthy strangers to the NHS. Our people, we must hope, are not starving but even many of our superficially 'healthy weight’ citizens, sustained on a diet of colourless processed foods, have the tell-tale, deathly pallor of malnourishment. In a country rich in high quality, natural produce that’s a scandal. Instead of misplaced, flag-waving loyalty to sticky Scottish confectionery or to your sickly, sunset yellow E110 and E211, other national drink, we could be eating healthily and heartily in support of our farmers and fishermen.
'Being overweight and chronically unwell is our norm,’ the Food Commission states candidly. 'It is not down to individuals, nor retailers nor manufacturers alone to address this problem. Everyone has to shift their mindset and be willing to act differently to what is done today.’
In other words, we all need to start cooking from the same recipe sheet. Supermarkets could start by doing more than giving Healthier Scotland reps token access to their customers. Obesity might seem self-inflicted but the dark forces of commercial manipulation are subtly irresistible. It’s no accident that the bread and milk are shelved in the furthest corner of the store past all the impulse buys. The big supermarkets want you to pop in for a pint of milk and come home with a 48 inch UHD TV. Tesco et al are not much better than back alley fraudsters with those shameless, bamboozling, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose special offers. With a bit of quiet and a calculator we could all work out the best deals. Hungry in a hurry with a bawling bairn and your last bawbee, it’s not so simple.
Shirley Spear, chair of the Food Commission says: 'This movement for change must include everyone and be developed at every single level – no single section of our population is blameless and everyone should look towards improving their own food choices and assisting others to do the same'.
It’s true. But ultimately, responsibility lies with ourselves alone doesn’t it? Change begins with our choices. We should make a start right now. No more excuses. With an iron will, we can indeed shop healthily on a budget in the likes of Lidl. A quick circuit of the shop reveals a good selection of everything we need as long as we don’t mind the exotic brand names. Unfortunately, to reach the healthy staples, we must first safely negotiate a wall of paperback-sized chocolate bars (35p each) priced cheaper than an orange (45p), or a pint of milk (45p). However we like it – milk, dark, white chocolate; hazelnut, praline, caramel – it’s there winking at us. So cheap we’d really be cheating ourselves not to buy. Over a third of our recommended daily allowance of calories in a single bar – a perfectly legitimate portion for one, is it not? What the hell, I think I’ll get two.
Sweets and biscuits and sugar-laden breakfast cereals line the aisle. 'Nougat Pillows’, for example, delicious chocolate flavoured wheat and rice shells with a chocolate hazelnut crème filling. Mmn! Eat this every morning and be thankful we ever wake up. Speed our trolley through the last chicane – avoiding the bizarre and random offerings of the central aisle – and we’ll find ourselves trundling virtuously along the final straight to the checkout only to have the devil himself whisper the prices of beer, wines and spirits in our ears before the finishing line. Prices only a fool would want to miss out on, right? I think I'll have the cider at £1 a litre, thanks. Good luck, Healthier Scotland!
Meanwhile, there are more serious and immediate issues to address. Funding for the Greater Maryhill Foodbank – which the first minister herself used as a backdrop for a photo opportunity a month before the Scottish referendum – has been stopped abruptly by both Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government pending an investigation into financial irregularities.
The details are besides the point. Where will those who rely on it go, if it closes? Why should they have to rely on the kindness of strangers to eat in the first place? When did food banks become so normalised anyway? The collective noun for foodbanks should be 'abomination’. Scotland has an abomination of foodbanks. Until we eliminate food poverty, The Food Commission’s 'Good Food Nation’, for all its good intentions, will seem like nothing more than a chocolate flavoured, crème-filled, shell of indulgence.