Opinion

Paul McNamee: Why Jamie Oliver's words carry weight

The TV chef has sparked fury with his call for a two-for-one pizza deal ban

Jamie Oliver in restaurant

I like Jamie Oliver. This sets me at odds with the prevailing mood. There is a groundswell, groupthink push that is laying into him.

Oliver is the anti-obesity tsar (unofficially). Since he took on Turkey Twizzlers he has been in the vanguard of a move to make Britain’s kids healthier and less obese.

He drew ire last week with his call to ban two-for-one pizza deals. He was meeting the Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and asked her to back the plan as part of her mission to halve childhood obesity rates in Scotland by 2030.

As ideas go (the ban of two-for-one deals, not the halving of obesity) it’s not great. It feels like a nippy measure that punishes small pleasure. I’m sure that many of us have used this offer at one time or another.

However, the opprobrium directed towards Oliver was ridiculous. It involved, mostly, columnists desperate to overstate their working-class roots fuming at how a multi-millionaire had any right to attack the poorest in society when this was frequently the only food available. He should butt out with his nanny state elitist interventionism. And wasn’t this a real double standard anyway as he owns a chain of pizza restaurants. That said, the call of “fuck off you salad shagger” was amusing.

There is a central issue here that the Oliver attacks don’t deal with. He didn’t create the problem. He did not build a growing obesity epidemic in Britain. He was not the one who racked up an annual bill of over £6bn for the NHS in England and Wales to deal with obesity related ill-health. Or a further £27bn in costs to wider society. Or a spiralling Type 2 diabetes problem.

He’s trying to do something about it. And if he’s clumsy sometimes, so what. At least he’s trying something.

Like Augustine, we frequently call for redemption, but not just yet. We need to stop the health dangers growing, but woe betide anybody who grabs our kebab.

A huge part of the problem is the availability of cheap, fresh food in the poorest areas of Britain. This needs to be tackled.

Several years ago we conducted an investigation we called The Big Issue Mile. We went to five of the most deprived areas in the UK, those that experts had singled out in reports looking at the correlation between bad health and poverty, and we walked for a mile calling into the local shops (which are non-chain) to see what fresh food and vegetables we could find. The results may not shock you. In most shops, there was the odd bruised banana, maybe an apple, overpriced bags of potatoes and onions or carrot on the turn.

Given this range, and a lack of money/opportunity to get to lower priced out-of-town supermarkets, it’s hardly surprising that people turned to lower cost fast food.

I’m not a big fan of huge government interventions. We do need to take personal responsibility. But in this crisis, there does need to be the hand of state. We can’t demand people eat more healthily by banning things – we need to make the alternative affordable and available.

If that involves a governmental investment of millions to provide fresh fruit and vegetables everywhere at certain collection points, at a hugely subsidised rate – supporting providers AND consumers – then let’s have it. Why not? Why not prevent the problem growing? And still make it tasty.

Let’s thank Jamie Oliver for putting us on the road. Who wants to be part of the herd saying the same as everybody else anyway?

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