Who’s your nanny?

School food and parental responsibility

This is part three in a week-long conversation with Jeannie Marshall, author of the brilliant Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.

For those of you who missed the last two parts in this conversation, the book is part manifesto, part family story.  It’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike.  Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among food books.

Today, the appeal of forbidden food and the dangers of allowing industrial food to call the shots.

Q: When anyone starts suggesting regulating soda pop consumption or, in Canada, introducing universal school lunches, there’s always a lot of talk about the nanny state and how parents are absconding from their responsibility. How do you respond to this?

Jeannie Marshall: I would say we should be asking just who is our nanny? Is it the government with regulations or is it industry? Right now we are being told what to eat, reminded to eat it constantly and even given very little real choice about what to eat – but it’s the food industry that does this, not the government. Nestlé goes into schools with nutrition information to teach children how to eat. Now there’s a nanny I really don’t want for my kid.

It would be great if we could have government regulations that supported a genuine food culture, one that nourishes human beings rather than fattens up the food industry. I realize I’m wishing for a radical change in perception, but I think it would be great if communities could collectively decide what they want to eat and if the government could help them to find it. Maybe this would involve supporting small farmers to grow a wide variety of foods with as few chemicals as possible rather than encouraging them to grow single crops for commodity purchasers. It would also be great if labels that tell you something about the way the food is grown (i.e. organic, free-range, etc) could be standard and meaningful. This would mean saying “no” GMO crops cannot be labelled as organic.

One problem is that we live in a world that worships the idea of free market capitalism. I’m not against capitalism, but I’m not so sure its principles work so well with the food industry. We’re encouraged to think that the idea of growth in corporations and economies is a law of nature. It’s not – it’s an idea, an ideology, really. The growth of the food industry has mirrored the growth in obesity and health-related illnesses. In all the places where local, traditional diets or food cultures have been subverted in favour of corporate food culture, people have become more unhealthy, more overweight and often more malnourished. If we shrug our shoulders and say we can’t regulate this industry because it would be bad for the economy, we have to pause and question this – what we’re then saying is that economic growth and corporate freedoms are more important than human health and happiness.

That said, I’m not completely sure that things like banning soft drinks would actually work (though, I think banning soft drink and other food/drink advertising would be a great idea). I think forbidden foods become more appealing. It might be better to just give them a place in our culture. We could decide, just as an example off the top of my head, that we think drinking soft drinks with food is kind of disgusting so we would never have them with a meal. Most of us already think it’s disgusting to drink them in the morning. But, maybe it’s okay to have a glass of something carbonated as an occasional pleasure – something you might do once or twice a month. Such a small amount won’t hurt anyone. But, we need a cultural structure to support this idea. And we even need cultural taboos to enforce the structure. The notion that you can drink cola any time you feel like it is good for business, but not very good for people.

I recently read something interesting that made me realize why meat consumption in Italy was fairly low in the 19th century. There was a thriving industry in animal skins, leather production essentially. And this meant that there was plenty of meat available to be eaten. But, the Catholic church places restrictions on meat consumption – no meat on Fridays, no meat during the 40 days of Lent, among numerous other days when meat is forbidden. Ultimately, this was good for people. They might have wanted to eat more meat, and it was available, but they didn’t eat it because of the restrictions placed on them by their common religion. In Canada, we don’t have a common religion. But, we do have a common government that is democratically elected to act in our best interests – not the interests of corporations and businesses – and so perhaps they could be persuaded to support us by restricting the food industry’s attempts to tempt us to eat more than we should.

None of this represents parents absconding from their responsibilities. In fact, I think the push to regulate the food industry and to create universal lunch programmes is an attempt to get the larger culture to recognize that it also has a responsibility to children. Children carry our cultures and traditions forward in time and we all have a stake in their well being.

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