THE HOYOS FILE: Encouraging healthy competition
Readers of this column may have noted that, from time to time I may have been just a tad critical of the Government. But when it comes to the obesity crisis facing Barbados, you will also know that I support every effort it is making in this regard.
I especially give kudos often to Minister of Health John Boyce for coming forward to champion the issue, as I think they say in leadership lingo.
Today, I continue to do all that, but while remaining in the supportive spirit, I am again raising questions about how much more the Government could do about our obesity crisis, especially as it affects our children.
Last week, Boyce once more warned parents that childhood obesity is a major forerunner to the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Speaking at the opening ceremony of a Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) meeting on the very subject on Wednesday, Boyce once again noted that “not only were obese children at higher risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, but they might also experience social and psychological problems such as discrimination, bullying, low self-esteem and social isolation”, according to the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS).
CARPHA announced in 2015 that the region had a childhood obesity epidemic on its hands, based on data from the Pan American Health Organisation.
Boyce said we have to take some of the blame for this terrible state of our children’s health, because the Caribbean as a region had “faltered in our response to the epidemic of childhood obesity.”
In Barbados, he noted, too many of us have moved from locally-grown, “homemade” food to imported foods, which are “high in salt, added sugars and trans fat.” This was due to the “fast-paced lifestyle of modern families,” who cook less at home and instead go out and buy more “unhealthy fast food”.
In my opinion, to deal with this problem of buying “unhealthy fast food” instead of cooking at home, we have to include all of the players, including all of the very nice people selling hot lunches from little vans. Have you ever tried their macaroni pie? It’s great.
But I would bet you an unhealthy soft drink that macaroni pie is as bad for you as fried chicken.
I would also like the health ministry to do much more about the standard of the food being shoved down the throats of our schoolchildren through the School Meals Department.
While I only have anecdotal knowledge of what is fed to the children, if it is generally like that then it sounds as if it might even outdo fast food in terms of calories and carbs.
And why are those same schoolchildren allowed to walk ten feet outside of their school’s gates to buy the most sugary confections available on the planet just to give them a sugar high, further enabling the spread of the obesity epidemic?
And whatever happened to the money the Government got from the sugar tax, which was added to carbonated drinks in the 2015 budget?
This so-called sweetened beverage tax was supposed to bring in $10 million a year.
Has it just gone into the Consolidated Fund, or it is being targetted at reducing obesity, as we were told it would be?
The minister, said BGIS, also was concerned about “widespread unregulated advertising and marketing” of unhealthy foods to children. And what was Boyce dong about it?
He was working with IT partners “to develop effective messaging for the ‘techno-savvy generation’, particularly in relation to salt and sugar reduction.”
Say what? You are just going to pay somebody to get on social media and extoll the benefits of less sugar and salt intake?
Just go on Facebook and amid all the cursing and fighting videos you will find lots of those quick-time visuals of healthy recipes and loads of advice about what is good for you and what is not.
You don’t have to pay for that.
What the Government should do is remove, not the value added tax, but the massive import duties charged on healthy foods which happen to be part of some long-irrelevant list designed for a variety of other reasons over the years.
These duties are well over 100 per cent in some cases and limit the variety of healthy items available here because they are too expensive for consumers when all the taxes are added. That way those busy families will have a middle ground between home-cooking and fast food.
There is a lot more I could say but we are out of space for this week, so let me finally suggest this to Boyce, whose heart is surely in the right place on this matter: Instead of just continuing to outline the problem at technical conferences where everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet, why not convene a conference with the fast food companies, the importers of pre-packaged foods so high in salt and other preservatives, and the beverage manufacturers here and get their input on how to create a healthier food supply for everyone?
Railing against fast food places is not going to lessen the busy consumer’s hunger pangs, but having more healthy food and drink choices for families both at home and on the road when they need it requires cooperation and buy-in from the suppliers.
And it may help us finally combat obesity by encouraging, shall we say, more “healthy competition” in the food and beverage sector.