Waterloo - There's a rush on for celebrity chefs who can do for Canada what Jamie Oliver did for England: be the flashpoint for a lightning campaign to abolish junk food from schools. Late in September, England's Labour government agreed to ban bad food from school vending machines and school meals. The ban follows several months of television campaigning by the popular TV chef, adored as much for his breezy boy-next-door looks and style as for his flair for cooking and passion for healthy eating.
But there should be no mistaking that this is a classic case of the overnight success that was 25 years in the making. That's the view of England's senior food policy expert, Tim Lang, who addressed the founding meeting of Food Secure Canada in Waterloo on October 1, just days after the victory.
Cooking up the storm over the past decade has been Sustain, the environmentally minded local food coalition that Lang chairs when he's not teaching food studies at London's City University or attending to duties as one of the only non-doctors ever admitted to the Faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians.
Sustain is now less than a month away from a showdown with Prime Minister Tony Blair on a private member's children's food bill to be presented for second reading.
Sustain has signed up about 150 MPs and over 137 national organizations, including those representing doctors, dentists, teachers and health foundations, in support of the bill, which wants advertising to children ended, junk food in schools banned (the bill pre-dated Blair's concession) and the reintroduction of school courses on cooking and healthy eating.
As Lang sees it, this campaign goes for the cultural jugular, "the battle for mouths, hearts and minds," and reintroduces public protection as a basic function of government.
This protective role - often ridiculed as "the nanny state" by hip retailers who insist that consumers should be free to make their own food and health choices without being hassled by "health nazis" - has been sidelined since free trade led to the abolition of protective tariffs during the 1980s and 90s. The obesity crisis now exposes the inability of governments to protect their citizens from the global junk food industry.
Lang has no problem admitting he's a fan of nannies. "Judging from the area of London where I live, the people who are most opposed to the nanny state all have nannies for their own kids," he told NOW after his speech. "Let's hear it for the people's nannies."
The role of health protector has only grudgingly been accepted by governments, says Lang. Governments accept responsibility for safe - but not healthy - water or food. The safety obsession remains, even though the tab for government-paid medical bills covering heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis - all linked to malnutrition - far outweighs costs for diseases linked to food safety, even allowing for such scandals as mad cow disease.
No government says shoppers should be able to decide if they want meat with E. coli or from a mad cow, but it's fine for companies to ply wares that cause chronic and non-contagious disease.
Governments have been pressured to accept responsibility to protect health rather than let market forces decide when it comes to the sale of tobacco products to children. To some extent governments have intervened over the sale of artificial products competing with healthy breast milk. But it took the obesity crisis, Lang says, before people in official health circles finally said enough is enough.
"Free trade was a misnomer for deregulated commerce in the interests of a new baronial economic class," he says, and the jive about consumer choice serves the same interests.
Individual citizens and the public have no choice when it comes to labels for genetically engineered foods or pesticides in foods. We have little knowledge about levels of corporate concentration in the food industry - five of the top 10 global corporations specialize in junk foods.
What may feel like free consumer choices are moulded by global ads that cost corporations over $450 billion a year, an amount greater than the GDP of 70 per cent of the world's countries.
The great majority of food ads pitch sweet nothings and high-fat, high-salt heart attacks on a plate. Virtually no ads pitch vegetables and fruits, probably because they are sold in bulk produce shelves, often undifferentiated by corporate owner.
The discourse on food topics over the past 15 years has revolved too much around food safety, the right to food as an antidote to world hunger and food as a trade item from developing nations, says Lang. His most recent book, Food Wars: The Global Battle For Mouths, Minds And Markets (co-authored with Michael Heasman), deals with all of these issues. But it's time to add some new framing, he told the 250 delegates at the conference.
"Culture and power have to return to centre stage in our food campaigning," he said.