Eating quinoa in lunchbox

Joanna Blythman: Banning eating on public transport is misguided

We need effective government action that doesn’t dump responsibility for our unhealthy food environment onto individuals, says our columnist.

I felt conflicted when I heard that the government’s outgoing chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, had suggested imposing a blanket ban on eating and drinking on public transport, except for water.

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On one level, I could see her point. Who hasn’t felt faintly revolted by someone chomping their way through smelly fast food on the train, only to leave the greasy packaging for the rest of the carriage to look at, and ultimately, for some poor cleaner to deal with?

But then I was struck by the problems with this idea. Dame Sally seemed to be talking about all public transport journeys, not just the short ones. Frankly, when I’m on the London to Edinburgh train and there’s nothing in the buffet car that I find to be healthy or appealing, I’d rather have a packed lunch or buy a substantial snack to eat before boarding.

The clincher that made me reject Dame Sally’s suggestion was her belief that cracking down on opportunities for snacking would help curb rates of childhood obesity. Attractive though that argument might be, I feel it’s not thought through.

Wherever we turn in Britain, there’s no escaping the highly effective marketing of junk food, even in supposedly healthy settings, like swimming pools and gyms. It’s hard to even buy a magazine without running the gauntlet of confectionery, strategically positioned at the till. And I think we can safely say that the government has no plans to stop that anytime soon.

No, Dame Sally was on much stronger ground for me when she proposed phasing out all marketing, advertising and sponsorship of less healthy food and drink products across all media, including online, at any major public venue or public-funded event, and on any public sector-owned advertising site. If this action were taken, the state would be more justified following it up with food bans.

Right now, I can’t help seeing them, while well-intentioned, as misguided efforts to deal with multifactor issues with which we haven’t yet got to grips. School packed lunches are another example. Hardly a year goes by without some food celebrity advocating that we should ban them in a bid to make kids eat the meals the school is providing.

But too many families – even those in work – can’t afford them. And of the families who can, many, with some justification, see the food in the school canteen as overprocessed and unhealthy. They want the liberty to send their children to school with something homemade. Why shouldn’t they have that right?

Of course, if we really want to make sure that kids eat well at school, we need to think more ambitiously. The government could invest in equipping schools with kitchens where properly paid staff would cook with fresh ingredients. And, recognising the enormity of the obesity- and diet-related disease crisis affecting our nation, the government could offer all primary school children free school meals, irrespective of family income.

An ambition such as this has the potential to radically reshape this country’s lamentable food environment. For me, it’s not a question of being for or against the Nanny State. It’s about taking deep, effective government action that doesn’t dump responsibility for our nation’s unhealthy food environment onto individuals.

Bans are a heavy-handed measure – some would even say authoritarian. Shouldn’t we keep them as a last resort, for when the government has done all it can to help citizens make healthier food decisions?

Here’s hoping that the new National Food Strategy will address some of these concerns.

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman

For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won’t use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There’s a lot of artisan fakery about
Are we now too busy to chew?

What do you think of the proposed ban? Leave a comment below…


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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.