I remember in the 1980s miners strike when whole towns in the north were being decimated, the unpleasant right wing journalist Auberon Waugh went to visit one of those stricken communities and asked some men: “If you’re so poor, how comes you’re so fat?”
My right wing friends I was at university with at the time found that very amusing. I thought it rather cruel.
The same issue has come back to me recently. I am advising one of the London mayoral candidates (guess which one?) on a new food vision for London and in my various meetings and reading research there are clearly two major problems facing London’s youngsters in food poverty and obesity. Nearly a quarter of a million children are now eligible for free school meals in the capital alone, their parents saying they haven’t got enough money to feed them regularly.
Yet obesity rates are soaring in that same age and social category.
So how do you square these parallel trends? A walk down any inner city high street gives you the answer. The proliferation of kebab and fried chicken shops offer meals so implausibly cheap parents who can’t afford to or can’t be bothered to cook a meal for their families will find it easier and perhaps cheaper to send their kids off to those places after school (what do the parents feed themselves, I wonder).
Something like a third of London children go to school without breakfast and so their learning is adversely affected, thereby creating in future ever widening inequalities. There are many impressive projects funded by groups like the Mayor’s Fund for London. I used to be a trustee there and went once to visit a school in Islington where two thirds of the children had no breakfast and we funded a programme to provide food for them instead.
Benefits cuts and low paid jobs are of course crucial factors but according to a GLA member’s report it will cost £58 million to provide free school meals to all primary school children in London. That’s on top of current provision for children from low income families. However you look at it, that’s a lot of money. That’s just term-time costs I imagine – what happens in the holidays?
But if we don’t undertake initiatives like this, the public purse will probably be paying out larger sums down the line, especially in our hospitals and wider health care provision. And we need to make those free school meals healthy and nutritious otherwise we end up making things momentarily better but longer term worse.
I remember being pounced upon by the other visitors to that Islington school when suggesting that by us paying for these kids’ breakfasts we were effectively abrogating the responsibility of their parents to feed their children, surely a fundamental duty. I said I would prefer to meet the parents and discuss how to make their ends meet better so as to allow them to do that than feel pity for their kids.
I don’t envy Sadiq if/when he becomes Mayor on how to find a solution to this. But find a solution we must.