Are We What We Eat?

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 Joanna Blythman and Bee Wilson

Mitchell Library


19th March


unnamed.jpgJournalist and broadcaster Joanna Blythman and columnist Bee Wilson, both the well-known authors of several books, held a fascinating discussion about the state of food consumption in the UK. Blythman’s new book Swallow carefully researches the secret world of the food processing industry and Wilson’s First Bite draws on neuroscience and psychology to understand how our habits, preferences and desires are shaped by both our early family influences and the availability of certain types of food in our immediate environment. Blythman opened with a funny story about her childhood longing for a Vesta Chicken Curry TV dinner and Wilson a touching one about the struggles with disordered eating and emotional memories that specific food types can trigger.
I wondered how much the eating disorders that those of us born in the sixties and seventies sometimes suffer from have been partly a result of our parents’ generation’s sense of deprivation during the war time rationing experience that continued through to 1954. I’m fairly sure my father’s continued compulsive eating stems from his beloved rations of sugar lumps being stolen by the family he was billeted with an a young evacuee. Sugar and its associated problems was a big subject of discussion, beginning with whether the newly passed sugar tax was useful.  Blythman considered that targeting the food companies instead of the consumer would be better, and that the tax was likely to open the door for the companies to introduce highly problematic artificial sweeteners.
Much of the following debate revolved around how we can begin to move away from an ‘obesegenic environment’. The Edinburgh Leisure vending machines were a case in point; the Iron Bru’s and Mars Bars staring down at you while you wait to sweat it out in the gym should seem as inappropriate and demoded as someone’s racist grandma. It makes a difference; Marks and Spencer have reported that their sales of confectionery have plummeted since they moved it away from the checkout. Many examples of other countries were cited as having a better approach to food and eating. Italy, for its insistence on enjoyment, good quality ingredients and the extended family eating the same food around the table.
I asked the writers if they could see the reconnection with natural food going further, and how could we create a situation in the UK where everyone in urban areas from preschool onwards, could have access to growing and cooking their own food. The Scottish-English divide showed itself here, as Scottish Blythman dismissed the idea as too radical to comtemplate, due to the lack of political will by any of the major parties, but Wilson was more enthusiastic, already familiar with various successful school projects south of the border, instigated by ordinary people. Brazil’s Ministry of Health was mentioned as having a highly progressive policy on food and eating including kitchen gardens, and it made me think of Cuba’s organoponics and Detroit’s reclamation of waste land for organic community farming. This could easily be done in the UK without waiting for Westminster or Holyrood to legislate.
The audience was enthusiastic and stuffed to the brim of interesting and challenging questions. Poverty and inequality, and the low quality of food in food banks were addressed. The ‘morality police’ who judge and sneer at women’s bodies. The unhelpful ideas of vice and virtue and how this relates to eating disorders. At the end, the gauntlet of choice was thrown down to the audience and UK society in general. Are we going to continue down the dysfunctional road of the past 60 years and eat so-called ‘food’ that would be unrecognisable to the great still life artists like Van Dyke? Or are we going to relegate this insane reliance on processed foods to a short blip on the human timeline, and trust Mother Nature with what is good for us as human beings?
Reviewer : Lisa Williams

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