On and off the playing field we can be sure that our fittest and fastest sports stars are too concerned about their health to be regularly eating highly processed ‘junk’ food. Yet it seems some sports clubs in Wales are happy to offer the potential sports stars of the future as much junk food as possible (with no alternative ‘real food’ healthy option).
The convenience and fast food chain outlets which dominate the food economy in most parts of Wales are directly responsible for a great deal of illness and obesity in our population. This is because of the high fat and salt levels in the food they sell, as a recent report from National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) confirms.
With the eyes of the world are focused on football and the excitement of the world cup matches in South Africa, this is a perfect opportunity to consider how football clubs could contribute to a greater public awareness about the links between food choices and health, and to promoting the importance of a healthy diet among budding young footballers.
This is particularly relevant in Cardiff, where the new Cardiff City football stadium recently picked up an award as a ‘Healthy Stadium’. Yet in the view of Sian Evans, a dietician and the mother of one keen young Cardiff City fan – a view that has been repeated to me many times by other parents – the quality of food on sale at the stadium is of such poor quality that she won’t let her son buy anything.
This apparent indifference on the part of the club to the health of City fans is underscored by the construction of a new outlet at the entrance to the stadium by McDonalds – a company that has been criticized regularly for serving exactly the kind of fast food which is described as being of a danger to health in the NICE report (and which, ironically enough, along with Coca Cola is one of the main sponsors of London’s 2012 Olympics!). What Sian and other parents want to know is, with such an array of excellent food being produced in Wales, why is there no local, tasty, nutritious, additive-free food is available in or around this so-called ‘healthy’ facility?
An extra irony to this sorry tale is that the retail park which was built as a part of the Cardiff City Stadium development sits on the former site of the Cardiff City Farm. There children once fed pigs and geese, and learned about how to grow their own food. Now it is a tarmac car park in front of a series of cloned superstores, including Asda – owned of course, by the American company Walmart. This is the world’s biggest corporation which was exposed in the film The High Cost of Low Prices as making its money by paying minimum wages to its staff and concentrating on high profit items at the expense of quality or, in the case of food, nutritional value. A new site for a replacement city farm was promised by Cardiff Council but has never materialized.
Can we really hope to produce the sports stars and teams of the future by feeding our children – the sports stars of the future – highly processed, manufactured food? Welsh people love playing sports and attending live sports events. But the food on offer at sports stadia in Wales (and England) is probably the lowest quality anywhere in the world (along with USA). The food available in and around the Millennium Stadium on match days, for example, is not only costly but is of very low quality, with little or nothing fresh or sourced locally.
The same criticism can be levelled at Cardiff Council itself. Despite achieving recognition from the World Health Organisation as a Healthy City and producing a Food and Health, and a Local Food Procurement Strategy, Cardiff is still guilty of serving up almost entirely unhealthy fast food at the venues and events that it manages. This is particularly disappointing at facilities like the Millennium swimming pool and at leisure centres where adults and children gather to have fun and also to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. Why are there so many vending machines selling fizzy drinks and sweets? And why does there never seem to be a ‘healthy option’ available in the cafes, in spite of all the evidence of the benefits which that would bring.
It is time for the Council ‘put its money where its mouth is’ on this issue, and show some leadership. Even more than the rest of the UK, Wales is experiencing record levels of obesity amongst children and young people at the moment. Surely it is time that influential organisations such as Cardiff City Football Club and the Council (which prides itself on being a ‘Fair Trade’ city as well as a Healthy one) took the role of providing healthy food options more seriously. They should make a better job of offering choices to parents and children rather than the usual fare of over-priced hot dogs and burgers – usually made from the least palatable parts of animals kept abroad in inhumane conditions – served with stodgy buns and greasy chips.
My criticism of the Urdd Eisteddfod in Cardiff last year for having the same shortcoming in terms of the poor quality of food available, received wide coverage in the press and an acknowledgement from the Urdd Director that improvement was needed. But has anything really changed?
For our young people to have the chance of being the future best sportsmen and women in the world there’s only one kind of food that will help them stay real fit – and that’s ‘real food’. Along with many parents, I want to see more local fresh food on offer at sports events and Council facilities, so that parents who are concerned about their children’s diet have at least got a chance of encouraging them to make healthy choices at this formative age.
To move things forward the Riverside Community Market Association, the social enterprise that runs Cardiff’s Riverside Farmer’s Market, is working with organisations, sports clubs, dieticians and the Council to deliver a ‘Real Fit: Real Food’ campaign. This aims to ensure that healthy local food is available at all sports and leisure facilities and events in the city. We want to make the capital of Wales a truly ‘healthy city’ which will produce the winners of the future, in health, as well as in sports.