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Is there too much celebrity involvement in conversations about childhood obesity?

Published : Thursday April 26, 2012 | Posted in : General Health
School dinner

The obesity epidemic has been a popular topic in the media recently, with a particular focus on the increasing levels of childhood obesity. Much of the coverage has centred around the best methods of dealing with the crisis. Is it better to enforce legislative changes to coerce people into making healthier food choices? Or is it more appropriate to employ “nudge” methods to encourage healthier behaviour? The debate is particularly sensitive when it comes to the eating habits of children, with health campaigners, parents and the government often clashing over the best way to bring down the increasing levels of childhood obesity.

While legislative debates relating to the obesity crisis tend to centre around whether or not to introduce a so-called “fat tax”, childhood obesity debates are usually focused around one of two issues: the food children receive at school and the food they are given at home. Both of these issues are contentious because few people appreciate being told how to best care for their children, whether this is as a parent or in loco parentis. The food children are given in schools has undergone something of a revolution over the last decade, thanks in no small part to the work of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

In 2005, Jamie Oliver launched a campaign called Feed Me Better in the hope of improving the standard of food that was served in schools. The campaign, bolstered by a corresponding four-part TV series called Jamie’s School Dinners, was undoubtedly a success, as it lead to the introduction of legally-enforced standards for school meals. However, it was not without controversy, with many people - particularly parents - criticising the campaign for taking the choice element away from children. In the seven years since, the lasting success of the campaign is unquestionable; a report in 2009 looking at students in Greenwich showed a marked increase in pupil performance when compared to results from before the changes were made.

In this instance the involvement of Jamie Oliver and the accompanying TV programme had a significant effect on the success of the campaign. However, is there a case to be made that too much emphasis is now placed on the so-called “celebrity” influence? Jamie Oliver was in the headlines earlier this week, accusing Education Secretary Michael Gove of endangering the nutrition of pupils who attend academies. This is because Mr Gove had stated that academy schools could have the freedom to choose the school food they would provide, rather than be answerable to the government. Jamie Oliver is concerned that, in the light of the “biggest obesity epidemic ever”, this policy is “playing with fire”.

It is worth considering whether this criticism was thought to be newsworthy because Jamie Oliver is a celebrity, or because he is a campaigner for healthy food. The likelihood is that it is a combination of both, with a greater weight placed on his status as a celebrity. If he were solely a campaigner for healthy foods in schools, it is unlikely his views would be given any news coverage at all. This doesn’t matter so much when, as in this case, the celebrity is qualified and informed about the topic in hand to such a degree that they are trusted. But what about when the celebrity is just a celebrity?

This week, Alex Reid, famous only for once having been married to former glamour model Katie Price, launched his own campaign called “Let’s Do Lunch”. The aim of the campaign is to raise as much as £1 billion from companies in exchange for promotional opportunities in order to fund free healthy school meals nationwide. This would see school meals made compulsory and packed lunches - often containing unhealthy treats like chocolates and crisps - banned. Whether this campaign is a good idea or even feasible is for another debate, but it is surely worth asking why this particular campaign - certainly not the first to be launched this year - received coverage when others did not. There is little explanation as to why the opinion of Alex Reid, who does not seem to have any qualification as a nutritionist, should matter more than anyone else’s.

The childhood obesity debate is surely set to rage on, but to what extent should celebrity factor into the conversation? Be sure to let us know your thoughts below.

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