Monday, November 17, 2008

The Monday morning blog: Labour MP and the obesity crisis

There can be no doubt about it. Britain is facing an obesity crisis. The North East has some of the highest obesity levels, affecting all age groups. The Government, in response, launched Change4Life last week in Newcastle. The North East is going to begin the fight back against fat.

The focus of the scheme is the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables from corner shops. In effect, the government is aiming to make the purchase of healthy food much easier by subsidising local shops to sell it. I hope this works though some questions remain about whether this scheme will reach many people.

Firstly, not that many people shop at the corner shop. Too many get into their cars (a cause of obesity in the first place) and head off to giant out of town centres, like the Metrocentre, to do their shopping. I don't think it appropriate to subsidize Asda and Morrisons and so on to sell what they already sell.

But even if fresh fruit and vegetables are available, that does not mean people will buy and use them. As the old addage goes, you can take a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink. The only way this scheme will be successful is if both parents and children are educated about the need for a healthy diet and exercise. Children in particular need to learn in school that cooking a meal is more than just opening a packet and slinging it in the microwave.

So were I running the scheme, I would ensure cookery lessons are taught to all in school. And how about doctors prescribing fresh fruit and veg for obese patients?

Anyway, step forward the gaffe-prone Labour MP for Gateshead East and Washington West, Sharon Hodgson. Sharon has three claims to fame: she notoriously wrote an early day motion praising herself, she was dumped by the Gateshead Labour party after only two years as an MP and she campaigned for cheap junk food for children. It is the latter claim to fame that stands so uncomfortably with her most recent pronouncements on the need to tackle obesity.

Don't get me wrong. I welcome her support for tackling obesity. But stating she is "proud" that the North East has been chosen to launch the government's project suggests her rush to get her soundbite into the press is somewhat misplaced. The North East was chosen to launch the scheme because of the very high levels of obesity. That, Sharon, is not something of which to be proud.

Hopefully, this scheme is a success and obesity levels do come down. But it needs to be more than just making healthy food available. To have healthy hearts, we need to change minds as well.

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