Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Festival of Ideas -- What to Eat: Personal Responsibility vs Social Responsibility

The Saturday afternoon session featuring nutritionist Professor Marion Nestle -- one of her more singular titles is '2004 Time Obesity Warrior', and indeed she is a mere slip of a thing herself, a practised public speaker with those lovely soft American good manners -- began very well when I recognised the man stepping up to the mic to introduce her: SA Minister for Health, John Hill. This is a bit of a feature of living in Adelaide; the SA pollies get out and about in non-ministerial mode quite a lot, so you'll often see Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith at the opera, Treasurer Kevin Foley at the theatre, or Premier and Arts Minister Mike Rann chairing sessions at Writers' Week.

Hill is one of the most liked, admired and trusted of the SA ministers; he's the friend of friends who have nothing but good to say about his integrity and intelligence, so I think there's a good chance he researched and wrote his detailed, charming introduction himself, putting the contemporary First World 'lifestyle disease' epidemic in its long historical context. By the end of his intro, Nestle was looking quite startled. 'It's a pleasure to be introduced by a Minister for Health who's actually interested in public health,' she said to the audience as she arrived at the lectern. 'He's really rare, so treasure him.'

Nestle was using a PowerPoint presentation, which could easily have been excruciating but wasn't; it was a tad too distracting, but she had put the images together cleverly (and it was, thank God, mostly graphics) and spoke to them with practised ease. Some of them were very funny, like the 'Shape of Things to Come' cartoon, a mocked-up parody of that 'evolution of primates' diagram that begins with a chimp on the left-hand end and moves through several 'Ascent of Man' type images to modern Homo Erectus -- except that there was a new figure on the right-hand end: a spherical, waddling slob clutching a burger in one hand and a shake in the other.

Nestle's topic was the contemporary obesity 'epidemic' and its origins, which she traced back to the 1980s. First, she said, a change in US farm policy in the 1970s saw production restrictions lifted and by the early 80s 'food became too cheap and too plentiful' (this had an absurd ring to me; I get the economic logic and the health consequences, but it still sounds a bit too much like the scene in The Grapes of Wrath where they're dumping and poisoning oranges while people with starving children watch them do it). In the early 1980s came the 'shareholder value movement' that saw pressure applied to food companies to show a profit, in this new buyers' market, every 90 days.

Other causes apart from the lower prices and the advertising push, she said, included the rise in consumption of food outside the home (at retail outlets there are almost always more calories and bigger portions); a rise in serving sizes (at this point we saw an alarming graphic of a gigantic paper cup called the Double Gulp, which apparently holds 800 calories' worth of non-diet soda; I don't know what this is in kilojoules but in my youth it was the daily calorie allowance that doctors put women on for a medical weight-loss diet, though not any more); and the new ubiquity of food, now commonly consumed at any time and in any place: 'When did it become okay to eat in bookstores?'

Her particular objection as far as the food companies are concerned is the way they market to children: 'You can argue "personal responsibilty" to adults about their food choices, but not to children.' On this topic she talked us briskly through 'brand loyalty' and the 'pester factor' before arriving at a phenomenon nobody can have failed to notice lately: selling food via cartoon or other cult figures, most recently the saturation exposure of the Shrek the Third 'brand' tie-in on practically half the food products currently available on supermarket shelves. 'Tell your kids that if they eat all the things that Shrek promotes they're going to end up looking exactly like him.'

Nestle listed a number of proposed antidotes, counter-movements and possible solutions to all this: the Slow Food movement; the organic revolution; the mainstreaming of animal welfare, leading to reform in farming practices (and if you think this one hasn't started working yet, go to a supermarket at the end of the day and look at the stacks of cage eggs left and the huge gaps where the free-range variety are all long gone from the shelves); the rise of local agriculture movements, manifest in things like the increasingly popular farmers' markets; a push for change in public health policy. 'I'm a firm believer in regulation,' she said. 'Government's role is to balance the needs of corporations against the needs of the population.'

Several commentators, including fellow-blogger Stu at Le Rayon Vert (who was there; see his recommended list of podcasts), have observed that the audience demographic at the Festival skewed 'old', but -- quite apart from being bloody annoying when it's meant as a putdown, though on the whole people over 50 think it's hilarious when people under 50 think "old" is an insult (and it's to Stu's credit that he doesn't) -- this isn't quite accurate in any case. Naturally the audiences at the Friday sessions tended to be older, because a lot of working-age people were at, um, work. The audience for the session the Chaser boys had all to themselves was, on the other hand, predictably very young. But on the whole there was a pleasing heterogeneity among the festival audiences in all kinds of ways, and one noticeable thing about Nestle's audience was the very large number of people in their teens and twenties -- many of whom, as became clear at question time, were apparently vegetarians or vegans.

There was also the bloke who asked the final question of the session, a fit and ferocious thirtysomething Nordic chap who addressed his question to the Health Minister. He worked in a hospice, he said, and he wanted to know if and when the Minister was going to do anything about some of the appallingly unhealthy food that gets sold in hospital cafeterias and canteens. Hill's reply kind of summed up the contemporary dilemma and the intractability of the problem. 'We're trying,' he said ruefully. 'We asked the people at the children's hospital in Melbourne why they don't get rid of their McDonald's, and they said it was because the parents had begged them not to. They say a trip to Macca's is one of the few things that will cheer their sick kids up.'


Ann O'Dyne said...

Great post.
Nestle an unfortunate name for a Food Reformist ! (ref 3rd world infant formula push)

re Maccas in hospital - of course it cheers up sick children.
Problem with Maccas is the fools who have it DAILY.
When travelling far from home, the sight of those golden arches is often A BOON, even for middle-aged women (they mean 'tea & toilet').

re 'the new ubiquity of food':
I am old enough to recall clearly the days when the streets were NOT full of ambulatory eaters and smokers.

I believe it is pre-packaged foods full of mystery ingredients that are enormising people today.
My grandparents died slim and very old, despite eating meat for breakfast and butter all the time.
All their food was constructed from basic ingredients always.

If the supermarkets had an Aisle not labelled 'Aisle 15' but "items with Nutrition' we would all be able to shop faster.

Anyone wanting any explanation of today's ills (obesity, pollution) needs to focus on the sheer size of

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ann (excellent handle there, girl), yes, I almost added a comment on her name but the post was getting too long already. She pronounces herself 'Nessel' and her name has no acute accent on the terminal 'e', but I did ponder the irony of it myself, for the reason you give. She did however look like far too strong-minded a woman to change her name for a little thing like that ...

thewordygecko said...

All wise words from Nestle, Ann and yourself. Thank you!

There is hope, starting small. I know children (nephew and nieces) who will not go near a Maccas.

One niece, on accepting a birthday invitation to go to MacDonalds, had to be told by her parents to restrain herself from getting up on the table during the celebration and making a passionate speech about the evils of junk food and the animal cruelty involved in the production of burgers.

I know a number of kids who just hate the taste!

Anthony said...

I have respect for Marion Nestle and anyone else who's willing to take on the big coporations who pressure us to eat badly and who disempower us when it comes to developing the age-old art of taking raw ingredients and making them into cooked.

But I wish she and others wouldn't link this battle to some putative 'obesity epidemic'. The moral panic around this so-called epidemic is based on using body mass index (BMI) as a proxy for 'fat' which in turn is a very poor proxy for ill health. Plenty of people - especially women - who have a BMI that makes them 'overweight' or even borderline 'obese' are actually quite healthy and have low mortality risk according to population studies. As for men, many if not most men in an AFL grand final team will be overweight or obese according to conventional measures.

Let's try and de-link the battle against multinational corporations and agribusiness (and the battle FOR good food) from issues about body shape. Most of us get the body shape we're born with. To tell perfectly healthy people who are technically 'overweight' or 'obese' to engage in dieting behaviour is usually to endanger their health, not to improve it. And the diet industry is the prime beneficiary.

Forget the the obesity epidemic. One of the most deadly mental illnesses when it comes to teenage girls is anorexia. And I can't help thinking the media moral panic and general intolerance around diverse body shape, aka the 'obesity epidemic', must partly be the cause of this