Jamie Oliver tackles childhood obesity crisis

November 4, 2016 Lizza Gebilagin

Jamie Oliver wants Aussie politicians to “grow some balls” to combat the obesity crisis faced by Aussie kids. He shares his plans with Lizza Gebilagin

Jamie Oliver is like the big brother you always wanted. The kind who wouldn’t hesitate to stand up to anyone bullying you in the playground – no matter how tough, large or mean the opponent. Only in the real world, it’s even better: he’s in your kids’ corner, fighting against the corporations and politicians who are making it too easy for your little ones to get hooked on “sh-t, processed foods”.

“Sometimes doing the right thing means you’ve got to take on a few battles but I think child health is a battle worth having,” he says on the phone from London. “You can’t massage huge problems of ill health, obesity, diet-related disease and the costs that come off it – you need a fully holistic strategy that guarantees some change. It’s a big thing that’s got to be addressed.”

This is why he’s so angry: There are more than 42 million overweight children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization. In Australia, 23 per cent of our kids aged up to four are overweight or obese. One of the main reasons for these numbers, says the celebrity chef, is the amount of sugar we’re consuming. The Victoria Health Promotion Foundation reports that our nation just happens to be among the world’s most addicted to sweetened drinks.

In the UK, Jamie successfully campaigned the government to introduce a sugar tax, and he wants Australia to follow suit. Or, as he so passionately puts it during our chat, “Get the politicians to stand up and grow some balls.” It’s all in an effort to curb the rising rates of childhood obesity by discouraging us to buy sugary drinks and, at the same time, reinvesting the money raised by the tax into schools and sporting clubs. The actual cost to someone like you or me would equate to an extra 31-42 cents (18-24 pence) on a litre of soft drink, depending on the sugar content. To the individual, an extra 30 cents might not seem like much, but combined, it’s expected to generate half a billion pounds (AU$923 million) annually for the UK after the tax’s implementation in 2018.

I point out to Jamie the main arguments here. After the 41-year-old first publicly shone a light on Australia in March to introduce the tax, there were critics such as NSW Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm who accused Jamie of being a “holier-than-thou presenter” that should stay out of policy, and Canegrowers Queensland chairman Paul Schembri who was “struggling to understand how [sugar] has become the bogeyman of all these health ailments”.

Economists such as Jason Murphy were wary: “A tax on sugar would hit the poor most. And it’s not the only kind of tax economists think is clever […] I’d like to live in a society where people don’t get fat because sugary drinks are cheaper than water. But I also don’t want to live in a country where the gap between rich and poor is like America.”

Jamie isn’t backing down. He truly believes this is the way to combat childhood obesity. “When I campaigned, made a documentary [Sugar Rush] and forced debate about it in the House of Lords, they were all saying the same stuff – and bullsh-t like it’s taxing the poor. But we reinvest that money in schools. And I know that any Aussie worth their salt doesn’t give a sh-t about money coming from those drinks going into their children’s schools, sports clubs, healthier tuck and food education. I just know it.”

He adds, “The conversations in Australia are exactly the same as the ones in Britain. [The tax] is not regressive, it’s progressive. In a land of many opportunities and capitalist democracy, the question is, when is it time for the government to do their f—king job and say enough is enough?”

The obesity battle at home

What can we do in our households now to ensure that our kids don’t end up another statistic in the obesity epidemic? The soon-to-be father of five says it’s all about “empowering anyone of any age to be streetwise about food”.

In reference to the processed food options readily available at supermarkets, Jamie really arcs up: “The industry is geared up to sell really cheap sh-t, and if you don’t know about food – where it comes from and how it affects your body – then you don’t have the logic to make [healthy eating] a choice.”

His lifelong work has been a commitment to tackling this knowledge gap. This is why the establishment of the Ministry of Food cooking programs is, according to Jamie, “some of the best work we’ve ever done. “It’s about local people helping other locals to live healthier, longer, more prosperous lives.” The Australian centres and mobile kitchens have been particularly successful as they’ve been match-funded by local government. This month, he continues the food revolution with the release of his new book, Super Food Family Classics ($55, Penguin).

“It’s much more accessible than last year’s book [Everyday Super Food],” he says, which was born out of the public wanting to know whether good, healthy food had to be boring and tasteless.

“The answer was obviously a big, fat no. But this year, Family Classics is about cooking some stuff that maybe you already cook every week, but instead of it being indulgent and naughty, let’s just tweak it and be really clever to make it super tasty, super healthy and totally balanced.”

Jamie’s recipes focus on ease rather than speed. “Some things that take two hours to cook can be five minutes’ work and totally stress-free, then other things that take 20 minutes can be fairly pumped,” he explains. Batch cooking is key and so are non-complete recipes, such as his seven-vegetable tomato sauce, which can be used in soups, stews, sauces, pastas and curries. He makes it once a month and keeps in the freezer to make healthy eating convenient.

So while we wait to see if our politicians will “grow a pair” and tax the corporations contributing to the sugar obsession, it’s cooking healthy meals that will make the biggest difference in our children’s lives.

“If you can cook from fresh, and have the capacity to duck and dive with the seasons, you can take on real meals instead of the sh-t processed food.”

Jamie Oliver’s $176 million Olympic dream

Jamie’s next “challenge of a lifetime” is to take on the major food and drink sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 so they meet certain nutritional and ethical standards.

“What I want to do is to create a brand to sponsor the Olympics, which is the biggest platform on the planet, and allow any business in any country of any size – big, small or medium – to get involved and have that stamp of approval if it’s ethically and responsibly sourced and fulfils a certain nutritional criteria.

“I’m going through the mean task of trying to find £100 million [AUD$176 million] to be a legitimate sponsor for the Japanese Olympics, and the people that run it are very positive and would love us to do it. Of course, we’re not allowed to fight with any of the hysterical companies. I just think the Olympics is a metaphor for where we go for the next 50 to 100 years, and […] I’m trying to come up with something clever.”

This article first appeared in the July 17 edition of body+soul.


Lizza Gebilagin

Lizza Gebilagin is a journalist, editor and podcast producer. She has a taste for whisky and a love of boxing. Find out more or contact her.

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