In my job, I am lucky enough to travel all over the world. As I checked in for a flight to the US this morning, the check-in lady asked what I did, and I told her I worked in food and nutrition. She looked at me and said she bet I ate very healthily. I confessed I was far from perfect. She told me she was on a diet, but broke it after two days. What with work and the kids, at the end of the day, she said she just wants to eat chocolate brownies. I know how she feels. I told her it wasn’t her fault: it’s difficult. But I could tell she hated herself for it.
How did food – such a wonderful thing – became such a demon for so many of us? We know that eating too many foods loaded with refined carbs and saturated fats — like chocolate brownies — is bad for our health. Poor diet is the leading cause of ill health in the world. It’s perfectly OK that we like chocolate brownies — the problem is that we eat too many of them, and they elbow out more nutrition. We know that undernutrition – the images of thin and stunted children – is the underlying cause of almost half of all child deaths. But modern ‘western’ diets also lead to malnutrition; to too many empty calories which lack the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy and fight off disease. To being overweight, or having diabetes, which are both forms of malnutrition. The Global Nutrition Report, which I co-chair, finds that every country in the world has some form of nutritional problem, and that the food systems all around us are a key cause of this.
The woman at the check-in desk may have been blaming herself for lack of willpower; but it’s sad to see her criticise herself when our entire food system is geared to make it easier to eat a brownie than healthy foods. Processed, salt and sugar-laden foods occupy the best spots on supermarket shelves, seem less expensive than fresh fruit and vegetables, and leave us craving more. The onus is on the individual to eat better, exercise more, whilst gummy sweets are placed at our children’s eye levels in the checkout aisle, and ready meals are 2 for 1 on offer.
This year, the Global Nutrition Report – launched on June 14th – finds that ending malnutrition isn’t just an individual choice: it’s also a political one. It finds that, without greater political commitment to addressing the poor quality diets causing malnutrition in all its forms, we will not reach global nutrition goals for another century, at best. This could come in many forms: in regulation, like sugar tax; increasing budgets for ante natal checks, breastfeeding and diet guidance;nutritious school dinners which would help children do their best. There are many things that can be done.
It’s going to take a revolution to change the food landscape. A slow and steady revolution, made up of individuals asking for change, for a better future. A revolution that will help the lady at the check-in desk feel better about herself, and better physically; a revolution which would put the Global Nutrition Report out of business because we have nothing to report on but good news.
We can all get involved in the Food Revolution. How did I get involved? It’s hard to put a specific time or place on it, but I think it started the day I bumped into my mother in my school corridor about 30 years ago. I hadn’t expected to see her. She had sneaked in, not wanting to embarrass me, to see our bursar. The reason, I later found out, was to discuss the (atrocious) state of our school meals. Standing in the corridor, she wore a look of humiliated defeat. The bursar had sent her packing. In those days, there was no Jamie campaign on school meals, no public debate. No support from friends. She was alone and she was defeated. And all I could feel was embarrassed.
It was the look of humiliated defeat that, years later, made me want to fight on. It made me commit to the Food Revolution. I often think I’m not much of a revolutionary. I’m not the type that likes to shout in the street, fist raised. Nor is the media my favourite vehicle for change. My day job isn’t planning campaigns or street demos. I like unifying concepts and finding common ground with people who think differently. I get excited about wonky aspects of food policy. I sometimes get bogged down in detail. As my Global Nutrition Report colleagues will tell you, I worry about terminology. Hardly things real revolutionaries have time for.
But then I remember my mother. What she did was hardly loud and public facing: until today, I was the only one who knew what happened that day. Yet she was a revolutionary in her own way. By coming into complain, by making the effort to do what she believed was right, she had done something revolutionary. She had revolted against accepted wisdom. She had said: this is not good enough.
In our own small ways, we can all be revolutionaries. We can remember that everywhere there are people like us, like the lady at the check-in desk, like my mother, experiencing frustrations and personal challenges around food. Somehow,we’re all connected, all in it together. Just imagine if everyone did a small revolutionary act each day. Add that up and you end up with a revolution.
So put me out of a job; join the Food Revolution, and end malnutrition.