Less choice means habits will change

Behind the new, tougher school food standards announced by the government earlier this month (May 19) lay an important shift. While it is certainly not the slaying of the Great Emperor Choice, it is an important correction. Restricting choice and saying that children are not allowed to make informed choices is a very major ideological shift. At last central government recognises that unrestricted choice now means healthcare costs later.

Eating treats all day long or buying chips daily doesn&'t just demean what food culture could be, a diet of sweet, fatty, salty food is ultimately less pleasurable than a diversity of tastes and foods. And the squeezed prices fail to offset the costs of damaging health, environment and families later in life.

Just as the passing of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 heralded the idea that 20th century capitalism could prosper longer if it gave dignity to ordinary people, is it fanciful to think that the fight over children&'s food might do the same for the 21st century? Hmm. 

Even I think that&'s going a bit far. Please note, however, that similar fights are running regarding
advertisements. And obesity.

What&'s this got to do with ­retail? For 25 years policies and public services have been driven towards a market ideal. Workforces believing in public service were split into purchaser/provider. Progress meant contracts, new working prac­tices, outsourcing, IT, logistics, price squeezes, marketing, consultants. Top retail managers gave the public sector the once-over.

Once the Thatcherite hallmark, this was maintained, indeed deepened, under New Labour which pursued this trader view of ­efficiency. Support for Big Food was central - I call it the &'Leave it to Tesco&' paradigm. Got a problem with sports? NHS? Post Offices? Defence? Leave it to Tesco. Want competition? Encourage Wal-Mart to buy Asda. It&'s as though supermarket and ­society have become interchangeable.

As far as school food goes, the Great Emperor Choice has lost some clothes. A world where a ­minimum of two portions of fruit and vegetables is obligatory for every meal, while deep-fried food is limited to two portions per week, will be very different. Choice may be OK for shirts. But in food the split is between needs and wants. And parents do think children&'s food is different. It&'s not certain how soon our fast food culture will change, but suddenly options loom.

Professor of food policy at City University