As we climb to the top of the leader board of the fattest nations in the developed world, should we tax junk food or do we need to transform the food philosophies of the populace toward the 21st century foodies?
A weekly food phenomenon takes place each Saturday at Sydney’s heritage listed Blacksmith’s workshop. Rain or shine, foodies and their pooches check out the local award-winning produce on offer at the Eveleigh Farmers’ Market.
The irresistible smells of egg, bacon and beef burgers on the Eumundi Smokehouse BBQ waft through the autumn air. If you’re on the Paleo diet, don’t fret – their meat is nitrate free. The abundance of gorgeous organic fresh fruit and veggie stalls are not the only drawcard for marketgoers.
There’s fair trade 100 per cent organic Columbian coffee from the Pitalito Huila region, Kangaroo cookies (for dogs), Vietnamese street food, sweet treats, and last (but certainly not least), Kylie Kwong’s tantalising vegetarian pancakes and dumplings – with extra chilli sauce if you’re game. And if you’re lucky, the food queen herself might even serve you.
Does it sound pretentiously foodie, or overly hipster? Perhaps. The Eveleigh Farmers’ market has filled consumer demand for fresh, local and sustainable produce. Food writers such as Michael Pollan and foodies, including Jamie Oliver, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer, have all encouraged the global community to become better educated on healthy and sustainable food options.
According to the Monash Obesity and Diabetes Institute (MODI) however, Australia is now the fourth most obese nation in the developed world. If weight gain continues at the current pace, by 2025 nearly 80 per cent of Australian adults and one third of children will be overweight or obese.
The pernicious health issues obesity can lead to include cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Collectively we face an urgent challenge to lower overweight and obesity rates.
Last month, UN rapporteur Olivier de Schutter called for a global pact to tackle the obesity epidemic. In an address to the World Health Organisation, he said governments should move quickly to tax junk food as unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to global health than tobacco.
Leading Sydney-based cardiologist, Dr Ross Walker, believes obesity should be seen as “a complex interaction of genetic, environmental and psycho-social factors”.
“We are living against our physiology,” he said, for the reason that it was designed for the “acute feast of the kill and significant times when this food was not available”.
Herein lies the obesity dilemma, as Dr Walker points out. Food is available to us in excess, yet in conjunction we are adopting a sedentary lifestyle.
British television series The Men Who Made Us Fat attributes cheap, tasty, processed, energy dense foods – which are effectively marketed and widely available – as the primary driver to the obesity epidemic.
What will instigate the lowering of overweight and obesity rates?
Federal Department of Health advisor, Kay McNiece, said the government’s preferred ‘nudging’ approach was to “actively educate, support and encourage Australian families to adopt and maintain a healthy diet”.
Ms McNiece said while taxing unhealthy food was considered in Australia’s Future Tax System review in 2008, the relationship between these costs and consumption of particular products was complex.
Peter Kenyon, co-founder of Sydney health food store Granny Smith believes there are many ways to skin a cat. His initial gut reaction to introducing a junk food tax was “great” but then said one had to define what an unhealthy food was.
“Sure, tax McDonald’s out of existence, make it so expensive for people to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken that no one can afford it – like cigarettes.”
This is the complexity of the proposed tax.
“A cigarette is a tangible thing while food isn’t,” he said.
Dr Walker, Mr Kenyon and Ms McNiece all agreed that education was the key to tackling obesity.
Mr Kenyon would like us to focus on what he deems “food literacy” in the school curriculum. This could be comprised of anything from basic knife skills to teaching kids awareness about food and seasons.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program aspires to teach students how to “grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, organic, seasonal food”. It is currently being trialled in 580 schools around Australia.
Ms McNiece said preliminary results of the program had found “significant overall improvements in student’s food choices”. Furthermore, 71 per cent of parents said their children were more willing to cook at home following their involvement in the program.
If initiatives such as the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program were a high priority, Mr Kenyon said he believed it would flow through for generations to come.
The financial detriment obesity poses for the government and society is already clear. The National Preventative Health Taskforce reported in its discussion paper Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020: “The total financial cost of obesity in Australia in 2008, not including overweight, is estimated at $8.3 billion.”
“In the long term,” Dr Walker said, “it would save the government money if people were closer to their ideal weight, thus reducing the enormous health bill from obesity and overweight people.”
If we look at the 21st century foodie, we could see what kind of food philosophy children may well develop by partaking in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program, or something similar.
Foodies have passionate awareness for nourishing, clean, and sustainable food. They are interested in food transparency – the full story behind where our food has come from, how it was produced and why it is good for us. Yet, above all, they believe food is a celebration of cultures and people, which helps to establish communities like the foodies who congregate weekly at the Eveleigh Farmers’ Market.
Mr Kenyon said: “Many friendships were formed in my shop over food, and over food preparation and recipes.” He cites establishing a sense of community in the twelve years while he owned Granny Smith as his biggest accomplishment to date.
The increasing popularity of reality cooking shows, chefs of celebrity status and the significant growth of organic food and farmers’ markets mark the beginning of a new social direction – towards better food choices.
The task to change public consciousness will not be straightforward. Dr Walker believes the real issue is getting to the root cause of obesity and directing treatments respectively.
Something’s gotta give, Australia. We must be guided and encouraged by the government, society and our peers to adopt the 21st century foodie’s philosophy. The benefits will be plentiful as they will promote a happy, healthy and meaningful existence for many Australians.