Yesterday I went to the lovely Lake District town of Kendal for the day, mainly to poke around a farmers’ market. What a sad irony that while I was sampling gourmet fruit vinegars and sourdough bread in the sunshine, a team of rescue workers in South Wales was demolishing a house to get Britain’s fattest teenager (est 63 stone, BMI 130) into an ambulance. She is suffering from multiple organ failure and unable to leave her bed.
Of the press coverage, the Daily Mirror has taken the most balanced and compassionate view. There are obviously some very serious family issues involved and you can read about them if you wish. It is easy to play the blame game, to say it’s Georgia’s fault for eating junk food and smoking all day as she lies in bed on social networking sites, or her mother’s for giving her condensed milk as a baby. And it’s probably no coincidence that South Wales is one of the most deprived areas in Britain. Poverty, ignorance and lack of confidence are all companions of morbid obesity.
As I say, it’s easy to play the blame game. But I don’t think we always blame the right people.
Kendal is a lovely town. Keeping it an attractive, vibrant and healthy place to live and shop must have taken vision, determination and hard work. It is a telling contrast to Altrincham in Cheshire, a town of similar size, where large supermarkets that belong out of town have been allowed to muscle into the town centre and independent businesses have withered and died as a result. Kendal has managed to keep the multiples to the periphery of its still largely unspoiled and very attractive heart, and although it’s nice to poke around a Farmers’ Market it gave me even more satisfaction to see people queuing out of the door at reasonably priced fresh food retailers on the main streets. Not a Tesco Metro or Sainsbury’s Local in sight.
Obviously Kendal has some things in its favour – being the gateway to a National Park probably helps. But plenty of towns in England of similar size and potential have been sacrificed to the multiples. What does this have to do with Georgia Davies? Quite a bit, because as soon as we reach a point where good, straightforward, natural food isn’t available and affordable, we’re on the way to a society where your class, your life expectancy and your ballooning waistline are linked, and not in a good way.
In Britain, the Government has had a long and shameful record of ignoring the realities of food inequality. They did it in the 20s and 30s, refusing to admit that there was any link between terrible rates of infant mortality and mothers living on bread and scrape, when the work of pioneering nutritionists was staring them in the face. It’s always easier to bleat about what people choose to eat being their own affair, and not that of the State. But how much did it cost to rescue Georgia from her prison? How much public money goes on rocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and associated illnesses? It is not, absolutely not, just a private matter if people gorge or smoke themselves to death. And that isn’t going to change until politicians have the guts to stand up to the people who make processed food, who gobble up our countryside until it’s impossible for small farmers who understand the land to stay in the business, and who arrogantly fill our towns with faceless supermarkets that sell mass-produced rubbish.
People have always eaten rubbish. But never have so many factors come together to make it so difficult for them to do otherwise. Never has the standard of food education and awareness in our schools and homes been so low. Why the heck are children being taught to design pizzas in food tech lessons instead of being allowed to get their hands dirty baking rock buns? We make parents feel guilty about putting crisps in their children’s lunch boxes, but we let Cadbury sponsor sports equipment in schools and Coca-Cola and McDonalds sew up exclusive rights to the refreshments at Olympic events. Would we let Marlboro sponsor our athletes? What’s the difference?
How many young people like Georgia Davies are going to have to live short, wretched lives before we face the unpalatable truth that junk food kills people? Watch Mad Men and it’s hard to believe that intelligent people could one have smoked so much, so thoughtlessly. Then people started suing the tobacco companies, and it was a game-changer. Let’s hope and pray that the same thing will happen in the food industry. It’s probably too late for Georgia, but there are plenty more people heading in the same direction, and it might be possible to save a few of them.