Spurred by a Herald article yesterday, my kids and I went for a walk (well, we do most days but this one had a specific purpose). The newspaper was reporting new Auckland university research showing – shock, horror – that.
“Sixty-nine per cent of urban schools have a convenience store within 800m and 62 per cent have a fast-food or takeaway shop in that distance”
Frankly, I was surprised the number was that low, but then in Wellington one finds small schools in all sorts of odd nooks and crannies. My three kids now go to three different schools, and each of the schools has shops nearby. But, as it was nearest, we walked around the area that encircles my youngest child’s decile 10 primary school. And what did we find?
On the first corner:
- a dairy
- a specialist pie shop
On the next corner:
- two dairies
- a Chinese takeaway
- the Empire Cinema, with its neighbourhood café and gelato outlet
And then in the main shopping area
- the supermarket, (as the kids pointed out, it was chock full of all sorts of stuff, “good” and perhaps “not so good”)
- a Hell Pizza outlet
- two fairly casual daytime cafes with plenty of take-out options
- a combination fish and chip shop/Chinese takeaway
- the video (and Post) shop, with lots of sweet and savoury nibbles
- an Indian takeaway
- another dairy
- a lunch-bar/bakery
- the butcher – bacon and cheerios don’t score well on the “disapproval” lists, and that is before getting onto the question of red meat.
And that was without including the:
- bottle store and bar, and
- three other evening-focused restaurants, two offering take-out
- and a couple of arty galleries/shops selling quite good chocolate.
But so what? If 70 per cent of urban schools are close to at least one convenience or takeaway outlet, isn’t that simply telling us that our schools are typically in the heart of our neighbourhoods. Which is probably where they should be. And I’d be surprised if the number of dairies and takeaway places has changed much in the almost 40 years since I was getting off the school bus at one of these corners (although there was no gelato back then, even in this Italian-influenced suburb).
Buried in the Herald article, well past the calls for governments to “do something”, was this comment from the lead researcher
But she acknowledged that no link between obesity and access to unhealthy food shops had been clearly established by research.
‘The evidence is quite mixed…You don’t have to wait for the evidence to take action. It’s the same with the sugar tax – there’s no definite evidence. It’s hard to get definite evidence in science. The fact is, unhealthy food is so available, accessible, affordable, we should protect children from potentially harmful products. ‘
At one level one can sympathise. Definitive evidence is certainly hard to come by in lots of areas (including the ones I’ve been closer to, in macroeconomics). But it is also a good reason for governments to be particularly wary of optional regulatory interventions, that directly impinge on ordinary citizens’ choices and options.
And that is even if one granted that obesity was somehow the government’s problem. The common argument is that the public health system makes it so, because the government bears the medical costs of the choices people make. There is something to that of course – although we all die of something, and the longer-lived cost more in New Zealand Superannuation, rest-home subsidies etc) – but as an argument it has chilling implications: we should give the government the right to coercively regulate all manner of behavior, simply because the government bears one lot of the costs if things go wrong? I support a public health system, but taken very far this argument will eventually risk undermining support for such a system, and that would be unfortunate.
In fact, most of the costs of obesity fall on the individuals concerned, and perhaps their families. A shortened life expectancy, or more sick days, has a cost to the person concerned. The benefits from the food consumption, or choice to do things other than exercise, also accrue to the individual.
Do people always make wise choices? Of course not. Do children and young people always do so? Even more so, of course not. Part of growing up is taking risks, and pushing the boundaries. But a big part of good parenting is to constrain the choices, and to educate kids in a way that means they are less likely to push the boundaries too far. It is about the ability to say no. It is about the ability to offer treats, in sensible sizes and sensible frequencies. And to balance that with a good basic balanced diet, with all sorts of foods mostly in moderation. And for adults to model eating sensibly – both within the family, and within whatever other groups the family might be part of (church, marae, sports club, or whatever). That is a big part of what culture is – memorizing, practising and reinforcing a sense of the way we do things, ways that support getting through life reasonably successfully.
Do governments have a role in all this? I don’t see one (and was unnerved to read that the Health Minister is apparently proud of the fact that the government has “22 initiatives targeting child obesity”). Which Ministers (or their Opposition peers) would I regard as good role models, or qualified to provide guidance on shaping the next generation? A few perhaps, but not many. Speaking personally, I’ve never found the presence of dairies, takeaway, or even the layout of supermarket shelves, makes my parenting more difficult. Perhaps others have a different experience but – to loop back to the Auckland University researcher’s acknowledgement – some robust evidence would be nice before governments rush in, trying to tell people where they can locate their businesses, who they can sell to, and so on.
But my inclinations are more austere Puritan than New Zealand Initiative libertarian, and so although I don’t see a role for government controls in this area, I was quite shocked last night when my elder daughter told me that her intermediate school sells potato chips and a variety of other foods of dubious nutritional value at the morning break. I’m running for the Board of Trustees – just to make some points in my campaign statement, rather than expecting the Green voters of South Wellington to prefer someone like me – and if elected would want to encourage the school to look again at quite what products it was offering for sale.
Speaking of the New Zealand Initiative, Geoff Simmons of the Morgan Foundation had an op-ed in this morning’s Dominion-Post attacking the Initiative for its new report The Health of the State and its skeptical take on specific taxes on disapproved classes of food (and alcohol and tobacco). Simmons leads with the point that the Initiative is “corporate-funded”, as if somehow that matters It is not as if there is any secret as to where the Initiative gets its money from – its members are listed in the Annual Report, and if anything I was rather disconcerted to learn that the Wellington City Council (always happy to intervene in anything) was a member (and Auckland University in fact). There are lots of things I disagree with the Initiative on, but the issue should surely be the quality of the argumentation, analysis, and evidence. That goes for the Morgan Foundation surely just as much as for the New Zealand Initiative – both privately-funded research and advocacy bodies, whose presence lifts the generally weak level of public debate in New Zealand.
Simmons suggests that it is really all about “ideology”. I don’t think that is right – there is plenty of debate, or should be, about evidence (partial as it inevitably often is). But he ends his column this way:
“Instead of a facile debate over whether a sugar tax would work or not, we should be discussing which we value more – living in a free society where you can eat what you like and burden the state, or whether we value having a healthy productive society”
Surely there is room for both? A serious ongoing debate about the impact and efficacy of proposed interventions, using insights from overseas experience, from other similar interventions, and so on. But also a debate about what sort of society we want. Personally, I like the idea of a free society, in which people can eat whatever they like – but typically choose to restrain themselves, in food as in all other areas of life. We don’t exist as servants of the state – if anything, it is the other way round. Civilisation and prosperity have always required restraint and self-discipline in a whole variety of areas of life. But the track record of governments in creating such cultures doesn’t look good: governments more often corrode cultures than foster successful ones.