Food wars where many are too fat to fight

John Osmond discovers that a Food Council being set up in Cardiff is part of a world-wide movement

According to American food expert Mark Winne, the main reason the US army turns away new recruits is that “they’re too fat to fight”.  Earlier this week he told a seminar in Cardiff University that 65 per cent of the population of the United States are either overweight or obese, and that, if current trends persist, a third of all Americans will be diabetic by 2020. Where America goes Wales will not be far behind. We already have the worst statistics in the UK, with 50 per cent of our adult population overweight, and 27 per cent obese.

Mark Winne is a leading campaigner for food councils that develop sustainable sourcing and consumption networks for cities and states across America. The movement grown rapidly in the past decade and is now spreading to the UK. Along with a wide range of partners the IWA is organising a major conference on 4 June to encourage Wales to take part (see panel).

The first food council in the USA was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982. By 2010 there were 111, and nearly 200 today. Climate change and droughts – in the last year 60 per cent of the US experienced water shortages – loss of farmland, food price spikes, growing rates of obesity and diabetes, and limited access to healthy and affordable food among poorer communities, have spurred the creation of food plans, strategies and charters across America.

Between 1979 and 2003 Mark Winne was executive Director of the Hartford Food System in Connecticut, a not-for-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in this relatively deprived town. Organisations such as these bring together a range of government and non-government organisations to provide information about food processing and supply, educate the public, and generally promote the local food economy.

In the UK there are only a handful of such organisations, and none up and running in Wales. The most advanced is the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, which has put together a radical food strategy for its community, in the process engaging with local farmers and food producers, restaurants, the NHS and GPs, the local authority, schools and colleges, and a raft of voluntary organisations. It has targets for reducing the number of people with diet-related ill health, promoting a sustainable food economy and communal activities around food, and reducing food waste. Similar initiatives are underway in Bristol, Exeter and Islington in London.

At our conference we will hear about the Soil Association’s initiative to promote a network of Sustainable Cities across the UK to be at the cutting edge of pushing this agenda forward. Backed by funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation this project has shortlisted a dozen cities across the UK, including Cardiff. Within a year six of them will be allocated funding to help them become exemplar sustainable food cities.

It will be an uphill struggle since the vested interests of the mainstream food industry is pushing in the opposite direction. Mark Winne gives a graphic account of the developing food wars in the United States. In California, for instance, the state government sought to bring in more stringent labelling of processed food, indicating its sugar and salt content, and promoted a referendum on the issue. At the outset, 60 per cent of Californians were in favour of the measure. During the subsequent campaign the pro-labelling lobby spent $9 million, but the food industry mustered $45 million. As a result public support dropped to 47 per cent and the referendum was lost. 

In Cleveland, Ohio, the local Food Policy Council began a campaign to ban the use of trans-fats in restaurants and food shops. Catching wind of the new regulation, the State’s restaurant association promptly secured passage of a bill from the Republican-controlled Ohio state legislature that pre-empted the authority of the state’s municipalities to make any law pertaining to food ingredients. This intervention was denounced by Joe Cimperman, the Cleveland councillor leading the city’s campaign, as “pro-obesity, pro-diabetes, pro-death”. As Mark Winne says, these food wars have reached a critical juncture:

“In spite of the rapid growth of an alternative food system – local and sustainable food production, farmers’ markets, the public’s rising food consciousness – we become more dependent everyday on industrial agriculture whose representatives insist that it is the only way to feed a hungry world. In the face of such assertions, we must ask if our dependence on such a system threatens to supplant individual self-reliance. Will personal freedom succumb finally and forever to the dominant voice of authority? Are we at risk of sacrificing our democratic voice to self-appointed governing elites? These are no longer speculative questions suitable only for philosophers, but real-life concerns set squarely on the plate of every eater.”

In San Francisco a campaign group seeking to limit the marketing of McDonald’s ‘Happy Meals’, complete with toys as inducements, have been denounced as “Food Nazis”. ‘Happy Meals’ are common in Wales.  They each contain 600 calories, which is more than half of what a child aged between 2 and 5 needs on a daily basis. According to Mark Winne, McDonalds is spending $1billion a year in the US to market ‘Happy Meals’. And we wonder why the obesity levels amongst children are rising so steeply.

The greatest strength the groups campaigning for locally sourced and sustainable food is their roots in the civic structures of the areas they represent. For instance, the emerging new Food Council for Cardiff has not been initiated by the City Council. Although it is developing strong connections with the council and the local NHS public health team, it has sprung out of Cardiff University’s Department for City and Regional Planning and groups such as the Riverside Community Market.

In his talk at Cardiff University this week Mark Winne quoted the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen as saying, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” As Winne reflected, “For a long time I had assumed these words only applied to the developing countries. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be relevant to domestic US food security and health policy as well.” If it’s relevant in the USA, it’s certainly relevant in Wales.

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.

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