Kingston - It was across a restaurant table at a local B&B that the question was put to me.
I was sitting with Cardiff University food policy expert Kevin Morgan last week as he finished reading the front page of a Toronto daily on runaway rates of diabetes, when he raised his brow in a way only the Welsh can do and asked, "Do you people not have a duty of care?"
To be honest, the thought had never crossed my mind. Though I knew about charges of careless driving, child neglect and professional misconduct, I never realized that behind these charges was a duty of care violation concerning potentially injuring others - and that this breach might apply to the lack of public policy on obesity.
Morgan then told me that duty of care is the rage in Europe, as policy folk strive to deal with an overweight population already accounting for about 10 per cent of health costs.
Surely, someone had to be asleep at the switch when children's obesity rates suddenly doubled in a period of 20 years. Public officials are worried that whoever was idly sitting on their thumbs while close to the scene might soon need a lawyer for neglecting their duty to the people whose well-being they were paid to protect.
Though these court threats may be more imagined than real, Morgan in his speech to a food conference at Kingston's Queen's University highlighted the "new moral economy' that implies new duties for caregivers.
Until recently, Morgan says, three factors governed all government purchasing for food: cost, cost and cost. The allowable cost per meal got so low that "the kitchens and ovens went, and in came the microwaves and scissors for opening prefab food. Politicians and public officials in charge of schools and other institutions also shied away from careful food selection in case they were portrayed as fanatic devotees of the nanny state.
"That accusation was the most spectacular innovation in the history of the food industry," Morgan says. "It had the same impact on politicians as kryptonite did on Superman."
But then came the duty of care, a bit of a nanny notion that's not much of a stretch from the long-neglected notion that governments have responsibilities beyond cost-cutting.
A leader of the 1990s campaign for Welsh "devolution" or independence within Britain and a policy wonk specializing in employment strategies for disadvantaged regions like Wales and Scotland, Morgan is most keen on the "double dividend" of school meal programs that pay off in both student health and local job creation.
Though Scotland is often ridiculed as the land of french-fried Mars bars, the sick man of Europe when it comes to rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the newly devolved Scots government (some might call it sovereignty-association) has fostered a local and quality revolution in school food.
In 2002, some three years before celebrity chef Jamie Oliver turned the public's stomach with his exposé of fatty turkey gristle offered up in English school meals, Scotland's new government published a report called Hungry For Success. It calls for a "whole school approach," starting with attractive presentation of nutritious offerings and including a food and health curriculum in courses as varied as social studies, culture and religion.
Special efforts are made to introduce new taste experiences - seafood risotto, spicy Cajun wraps, South African bobotie and tagliatelle with vegetable herb sauce are among the entrees in a meal cycle - that can be carried over into lifelong eating habits.
One school district in East Ayrshire, west of Glasgow, piloted a Food For Life model promoted by the Soil Association (which represents organic growers and enthusiasts and has Prince Charles as a patron). In this model, 75 per cent of all school purchases are for unprocessed foods, half of all purchases must be local, and 30 per cent must be certified organic.
This is all grist for the mill of Morgan's theories of the new economy built on turf abandoned by central governments, where "civic capacity, public-private partnership and creative political leadership are the factors."
The death of geography has been greatly exaggerated, Morgan likes to quip, his way of saying that a new politics of local - what could be called "deep local," the rough parallel to deep ecology - is what will drive healthy food and economic renewal in today's world.