Why Food Matters

Today, in our cash-rich, time-poor society, our lifestyle means that we are not able to feed our children properly. It is now widespread for children, across all social classes, to go to bed hungry. Our children are starving. Yes, starving! Not children in Africa. Not poor children. Not homeless children. Not children from 'dysfunctional families'. But our children.

This is the shocking conclusion of an extensive study recently carried out by the World Health Organisation on public nutrition across the globe. Researchers found that all across the Western world, the developed world, the affluent world, the educated world, children are growing up hungry because their parents are not cooking for them. And when they are not actively hungry, they are malnourished and survive on a diet of unhealthy, unsatisfying, processed food. They are, as the Gaelic saying goes, marbh leis an tae agus marbh gan é, dead with the tea and dead without it!

The reputable and comprehensive study carried out by the World Health Organisation Collaborative Research programme and published in 2007 took place in 35 countries across Europe, the USA and Canada. It is sadly ironic, that in the area of the globe which we call the ‘first world’, food poverty amongst children is widespread and is not linked to financial poverty. In Ireland, at a time when we are ranked the second richest country in the world, bloated on the fast, brash, arriviste wealth of the Tiger-years, 16% of our children are shown to suffer food poverty. Given that we have recently commemorated the 150th anniversary of the potato famine, given that the memory of hunger, lack, and want, are etched deep within the national psyche, you could say we haven't learned much. In Britain, one of the world's oldest and richest economies, with its consolidated inter-generational wealth, going right back to the days of empire, the rate of food poverty among children in the year 2007 is 15%. The USA is even worse----despite the conspicuous wealth and confidence of its national narrative, for almost a quarter of its children, the American dream is a hollow one----an alarming 22% are hungry. The land of the free and the hungry.

In the study, 'food poverty' was defined as existing where children ‘sometimes, always, or often’ went to bed, or to school, hungry because there was not enough food at home. Either there was no food in the house, or it wasn’t edible because nobody in the house had used it to cook a meal. Parents were letting their children go hungry because they did not have the time, nor the energy, nor the will, nor the organisational know-how, to provide proper regular meals for their family.

It was found that children from both private and state schools suffered food poverty. Far from being a phenomenon of the disadvantaged, or uneducated classes, in some cases, the rate actually rose slightly amongst the wealthier classes. Following hot on the heels of the WHO study, a British study carried out by the reputable Institute of Child Health backed up the findings, showing that the children of middle class families, where both parents worked long hours outside the home, were most likely to suffer obesity and diabetes. They found a direct correlation between the hours worked by mothers and the risk of their children being obese.

Once, hungry children suffered the poverty of there not being enough money for food---the poverty of (literal) poverty. Now, they suffer the poverty of affluence, that new 21st century disease which Oliver James pithily termed 'Affluenza'. The affluence of this century seems to be a more toxic evolution of the last century's affluence, castigated by economist John Kenneth Galbraith as 'private opulence and public squalor'---- his thesis being that the more private wealth people accumulated, the more public services and infrastructure were run down. Now, as well as private opulence and public squalor, which we most certainly have, right across the developed world, we also have domestic squalor. During this present phase, everything that falls within the realm of domesticity seems to be under attack----personal relationships, the family, caring for children and community. These aspects of society are all currently suffering the same fate as public services and infrastructure have already suffered. Now, while we continue to accumulate private opulence through our consumer lifestyle, it is at the cost of our familial, cultural and societal infrastructure. This paradoxical bind we find ourselves in begs the obvious question---- what is the purpose of affluence if we must sacrifice our most basic needs to chase it?

Across the Western world, in the post-Reagan/Thatcher era, public infrastructure has been deliberately run down, as neo-liberal economics insinuated itself into governance. Health services, schools, water supplies, roads have all deteriorated, failed, cracked or collapsed as a result. From the dead victims of Hurricane Katrina, to the dead victims of a scandalous Irish health service, populations across the Western world are suffering the consequences of pervasive public squalor.

Sooner or later, when you run down an infrastructure, it cracks. You can get a way with it for a while, perhaps even a generation, but then something happens and everything falls apart. The centre cannot hold. This is the public squalor which we have allowed to creep up on us, on our watch. We don't yet realise it and we haven't yet coined the phrases to describe this phenomenon, but we are now at the beginning phase of the running down of our social and familial infrastructure in the very same way that our public infrastructure was run down in recent years. The end result of running down infrastructure is squalor, in this case, social and familial squalor. If we think there will not be repercussions in the future from this domestic squalor, as far-reaching in their own sphere, as the catastrophes of public squalor, we are either very foolish, or very blinded by the short-term lure of our little grab for private opulence, regardless of the consequences.

If we are interested in what those consequences might be, we can find some clues in the World Health Organisation study. Not surprisingly, it found that the effect of hunger on the children was deep and far-reaching. Those children who were not being properly fed, reported psychological and emotional, as well as physical problems. When they did get to eat they were, in the main, eating processed food, with little nutritional value and were unlikely to eat fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis. One of the saddest findings of the study was the large proportion of the children in food poverty, who said they wished they had a different life and did not feel happy.

Meals are a child’s security and when they are not provided, or when there is doubt as to whether they will be provided, from day to day, a child’s sense of safety and of being cared for, are badly shaken. It must be an in-built evolutionary trait, that we are so in need of being fed regularly by our parents. I knew, at a very early age, how important regular home-cooked meals were, because I missed them when my mother was too busy out working to provide them. I felt the difference when I went to stay with my grandmother and had the wholesome pleasure of her beautiful home-cooking and the certainty that meals would always be provided every day, around the same time. Once, I was so miserable back at home, on a diet of fish fingers, Angel Delight, Jaffa Cakes and packet oxtail soup, that I begged my mother to let me live with my grandmother permanently. When asked why, I said ‘because she cooks proper meals for me every day!’ There were plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t have wanted to live with my grandmother. She was very loving, but was stricter than my mother and I was terrified of my grandfather, who hated children, only ever addressed me as ‘child’ and was quite a tyrant, yelling out like Father Jack if I didn’t tip-toe around, as he sat in his special chair, moodily smoking his pipe. But the yearning for the certainty of ‘proper food’ three times a day, overwhelmed all my other misgivings, even my terrifying grandfather. My mother dismissed my request as being just another silly whim, continued with her haphazard culinary provision and a couple of years later packed me off to boarding school, where I spent six even hungrier years. In fact, being hungry and being cold are the overriding memories of my youth, forming a constant ache of neglect, which was never erased by other positive things which I experienced and which you would think should have been more important than mere food. But, being comfortable in other ways never makes up for the primal deprivations of being cold or hungry as a child. I have spoken to many people since, who like me, were sent to boarding schools in the days when the food was universally awful, and they all feel as I do. Many ex-pupils of boarding schools belong to the country’s most powerful and influential cohort of people today. They are successful in politics, business and the professions. They have had every privilege in life, but if you enquire about their schooldays, they will always talk about the dreadful food and the interminable longing for home-cooking. That yearning never leaves them and none of the other privileges of class, education, or money, ever compensate for not getting good, home-cooked food when they were young.

Those of us hungry at boarding school, the well-to-do hungry, were unusual when I was growing up. Mostly, children ate quite well and only the truly poor, who could not afford enough food, suffered nutritionally. It was an era when much food was locally produced and genuinely farm-fresh, from bread, to milk, to fruit and vegetables. The weekly 'big shop' hadn't yet become an institution and people bought food more frequently in the small shops of their towns and villages. Even in urban estates, fresh foods were delivered daily, or a couple of times a week, by local bakers, green-grocers and milkmen. It was the era of stay-at-home mothers, when there was time for home-cooking and most people took it for granted.

Roll on to the present day, however and my childhood experience is being mirrored right across society. Most children today, from all backgrounds, are experiencing the ever-present ache of neglect that comes with a yearning for ‘proper food’. What was unusual in my day, is now the norm. And when children today are not actually hungry, many of them are eating a diet of consistently unhealthy, high-fat, highly-processed foods.

As well as hunger, there is an epidemic of obesity and diabetes across the western world, as a result of what we are feeding our children. It is estimated that in Britain, for example, by the year 2050, a quarter of all children will be obese. Doctors say that acquired diabetes, which a generation ago, only manifested in adults, is now being diagnosed in children. There is also emerging evidence of high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems amongst children, caused by their high-salt diet. These developments are new medical issues, directly caused by the decline in home-cooking by parents. And of those children who are getting home-cooked food, few of them get their required intake of vitamins and minerals, due to the depleted nutritional value of the foods we eat, caused by modern agricultural practices. Studies have also discovered a severe deficiency in certain omega-fats in the diet of children, a deficiency which, if it persists through three generations of any family, will actually reduce the intelligence of further children.

It is no exaggeration to say that if these trends persist, the health of our future generations are seriously in peril. Medical experts are now predicting, that due to the combined effects of bad diet and lack of exercise, the current generation of children may be the first to have a lower life-expectancy than that of their parents. One shocking study reported that children born in the last ten years have a lower aggregate life expectancy than those born in 1890! And unlike me, today’s children probably don’t spend half their time at Granny’s, where they can experience good old-fashioned cooking. Today’s Granny may not be that interested in cooking herself anymore, or may be back in the workforce, or may have re-mortgaged the house and be travelling the world! Granny, baking in her kitchen, on the Aga, is no longer a permanent fixture of our world. A whole generation of children are growing up feeling uncared for, neglected, but perhaps not even understanding what is wrong anymore, because the benchmark, Granny’s benchmark of warm, homely normality, has disappeared also. These children probably feel vaguely unhappy, without even knowing why and they will not grow up being able to remedy the situation for themselves and their own children, because they have never had the experience of being properly, consistently nourished, with good home-cooked food that satisfies their needs on all levels of their being. They are embarking on life at a disadvantage, being, in a very primal way, ungrounded.

I wonder what the consequences of this new social experiment will be for our society. Will these children have low self-esteem? Will they become anti-social? Will they suffer long-term depression, or anxiety? What kind of parents will they eventually become? And what does this say about our humanity, that this most primitive, most instinctive duty of parents, to feed their own children, is now breaking down? Animals know to feed their young, but in the human world, we are becoming so out of touch with our own nature, it is no longer something we can take for granted.

In Dublin Zoo, a few years ago, a beautiful chimpanzee, called Lucy, was born. My daughter had the wonderful joy of ‘meeting’ that little baby chimp, when she was just a few weeks old, in the arms of zoo-keeper, Gerry Creighton Jnr., swaddled in a white blanket, like a baby at a christening. Gerry became Lucy's surrogate parent because Lucy’s mother, Mandy, was in some way disturbed and would not perform her normal mothering duties----her natural, maternal instincts seemed to have been damaged by the artificial nature of life in the zoo. She didn’t want to behave like a mother. She wanted to continue her carefree life, exactly as she had lived before Lucy’s birth. She treated little Lucy as little more than a plaything, a literal fashion accessory, holding her upside down by the ankle and swinging her around like a handbag, cackling at the fun she was having. She refused to watch over Lucy, or keep her safe and teach her the ways of the group. And she certainly was not going to cramp her style by bothering to feed little Lucy. There was something missing with Mandy. Poor Lucy was starving and all efforts of the zoo staff, to encourage this mother to feed her own offspring, failed.

Because of her irresponsible mother, Lucy had to be removed from the chimp colony, for her own safety---since she was rejected by her own mother, the other chimps also rejected her. Poor Lucy was put into a private enclosure, with a glass wall and branches for her to swing from, her own version perhaps, of a child's lonely bedroom, kitted out with TV and DVD-player. Having met Lucy at the beginning of this saga, my daughter took a personal interest in her welfare and we went to visit her again, a while later, only to find her alone in the cage, hanging onto a rope and swinging herself violently against the glass. ‘Ooch! That must hurt!’ said my daughter, as Lucy bashed against the wall. Lucy was self-harming. Not fed, not cared for and not socialised by her mother, Lucy did not love herself. She was a young chimp in trouble, heading for a serious anti-social disposition if she could not be healed of the trauma of maternal neglect. So Lucy was put in nappies and brought, in a baby’s car seat, to live with Gerry and his very understanding partner, Leona, who put a cot in their bedroom for the chimp to sleep in and gave her a taste of family life, feeding her from a baby's bottle. This continued until it was felt Lucy could gradually be reintroduced into the chimpanzee colony, interestingly, by cultivating a relationship between Lucy and her grandmother, Judy, who did not seem to be as alienated from her own mothering instincts as Lucy's mother was.

It is understandable how this sort of thing can happen in a zoo, where everything is so wrong and out-of-sync with the natural world. You can see how generations of chimps, bred in captivity, in such a restricted, artificial environment would eventually display a dysfunctionality, a loss of the trans-generational survival instinct. It seems almost inevitable, a symptom of how detrimental life in a zoo can be.

Could this also happen in human society? Aldous Huxley seemed to think so, when he wrote his thought-provoking novel Brave New World. In Huxley's nightmarish scenario, the world is run like a giant corporation and the social and political spheres of human life have been totally subsumed into the overall corporate interest. Motherhood and family, are but quaint relics from the primitive past, in a world populated by mass- produced clones. In fact, motherhood is considered 'a pornographic impropriety'. In this dystopia, Mandy has a fictional human precedent, in the character of Linda. In the novel, it is only on the 'savage' reservation that babies are still born to women. When Linda, a Brave New World citizen, becomes stranded on the reservation and has a baby through natural means, like the natives of the reservation, she rejects her own offspring, according to her previous Brave New World conditioning. Her baby, John, grows into a little boy damaged and bewildered by his mother's behaviour, so different to the other native mothers he sees on the reservation, who feed and carry and care for their own children. In this exchange between the toddler, John and his mother, Linda, we can see the same behavioural patterns displayed by Dublin Zoo's dysfunctional mother:

He pressed himself against her. He put his arms around her neck. Linda cried out. 'Oh, be careful. My shoulder! Oh!' and she pushed him away, hard. His head banged against the wall. 'Little idiot!' she shouted; and then, suddenly, she began to slap him. Slap, slap….. 'Linda,' he cried out. 'Oh, mother, don't!' 'I'm not your mother. I won't be your mother.' 'But, Linda………Oh! she slapped him on the cheek.

Back in the real world of 2007, we now know that significant percentages of parents, right across the western world, are displaying tendencies like Lucy Chimp's mother and failing to feed their own offspring. This is a watershed in human behaviour and something we should not ignore. We need to ask Why? What has gone so awry in the human zoo that this is happening? Is our contemporary lifestyle so hellish, that there is, deep down, a subconscious deadening of the survival instinct? These are not bad people, these parents of hungry children, in the World Health Organisation’s study. But they are parents under pressure. Lucy’s mother had no excuse, she had nothing else to do other than look after her baby and swing from the branches. She had no draining job to go to pay the mortgage, no long commute, no lack of extended family. The problem seems to be that the parents of today’s hungry children do not have the choices that both Lucy’s mother and previous generations of human parents had.

As parents, we are all struggling within the macro-societal dispensation, which decrees that the only work that really matters is work that adds to the gross national product. We are all to blame for shaping such a world, so dysfunctional, so bankrupt of values, as the world in which children are growing up in today. In the human zoo, we are put under so much pressure by the life our society compels us to live, that we are simply not able to feed our children properly. That pressure has broken the connection with our instinctual nature, so that the most primal needs of our own offspring are not being met. When we cannot feed our children, we have to say that our society, which we are all responsible for creating, is in some way sick. How can we call ourselves advanced, civilised, or developed? The pet dogs we get for our children, know how to nourish their puppies, above all else, but we do not. We are loving parents, good members of society, responsible people, able to buy houses and hold down jobs, parents who want the best for our children, but we are not able to feed our children. And unless something in our society changes, the percentage of hungry children will increase exponentially.

I strongly resist the temptation to blame individual parents. It is easy to be self-righteous about this issue. But if we are to really deal with the problem, we must look at the society that we have created, with all its demands and limitations that dictate the parameters of our lives. The truth is that we have created a society that does not support parenting in any way. The caring for our young, including the feeding of our young, is a time-consuming, labour-intensive, unpaid duty, that befalls all of us once we become parents, but is utterly ignored in the way we structure our society.

For increasing numbers of families, it is becoming more and more difficult to feed children well. This is something very serious that needs urgent redress. There will be significant societal fall-out from these large numbers of young people growing up in neglect, with emotional, psychological and spiritual disturbance, as a result of being uncared for in the most basic way. Unless we act now, things will get worse and the neglect of our children will deepen and spread, as the job of parenting becomes more and more difficult.

This report of widespread food poverty among our children should be a wake-up call----in terms of the sustainability and functionality of western society, it is a time of clear and present danger. The family is the centre of our society. The home is the centre of the family. The hearth, or kitchen, is the centre of the home. The family meal is the centre of family life----when this disappears, everything else begins to crumble. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

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Blessings on your table!

The Good Food Angel.

Remember, healthy eating is enjoyable!


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