Recipes for Disaster

Issue section: 

To blame unhealthy children on women is ignoring what the market has done to childcare and people‘s lives in the last two decades.

Talk about not having it all. Women are expected to work longer, but then get the blame when anything goes wrong with their kids.

According to the Economist, "The increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India."

But this great contribution to the world economy has been achieved on the cheap. Childcare remains privatised, Britain has some of the worst state nursery and pre-school provision in Europe, and those women wanting to work have to rely on partners and family members to help them. Or else they have to be rich. Despite the casual way in which media columnists refer to their nannies - as if we all had one - the bottom line cost of employing a nanny is £35,000 a year.

In addition, this big increase in women's work has gone alongside a much worse work culture. Working hours are the longest in Europe for men. But many women also work long hours, and shift working is much more common. A quarter of all families with children contain at least one breadwinner working shifts.

Suddenly we‘re hearing this isn‘t good for children - and women are blamed for it. They buy processed food and poor quality takeaways, and children are in danger of obesity because they eat junk food. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the fact that only 12 percent of people cook from scratch.

That isn't so surprising really, when you consider how much more women have to do outside the home than our mothers and grandmothers had to do. Women today are engaged in the biggest juggling act ever of trying to balance pressurised work, shopping, cleaning and childcare.

Good cooking using healthy ingredients can of course be done quickly and pleasurably, but there are all sorts of reasons why it is not. Ready meals don't need much thinking about, and they are palatable to a generation brought up on processed food. There needs to be a cultural revolution in attitudes towards allowing people the time for shopping and time for cooking properly. If you shop at 10pm on a Monday evening you tend to think frozen and ready meals, not rocket salad and goat's cheese.

Child obesity is a class question too. Fish, fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meat are all expensive, while much that is bad for you is cheap and filling. The rich can eat out every night in good, healthy restaurants while eating out for the working class means Pizza Hut, McDonald's, kebabs and chips.

Public restaurants

So let's start blaming those who have helped ruin a generation's health. Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthy school meals is only necessary because of government policy. School meals were the first Tory privatisation back in 1979. School meals services were sold off, and canteen style cheap fast food was introduced.

A century ago it was recognised that children needed nutritional school dinners. But for the past two decades these have been destroyed in the name of the market. We now complain children won't eat healthy food when we've miseducated them.

What can we do about the problem now? Not send women back into the home. Here are a few suggestions that would make life better: a 35-hour working week for men and women would enable parents and families to spend more time with children. A national childcare service, free at the point of use along the lines of the NHS, would free up parents‘ time.

Not for profit public restaurants, based on healthy eating, would mean families could eat out at low cost. There should be healthy subsidised school meals providing breakfast, lunch and tea.

Who would be against that? The big companies who make such profit from unhealthy foods or from private childcare, and the employers who would have to pay the same for a shorter working week. Who would be for it? Just about everyone else apart from the government. No contest really.