Thu, Apr-02-20, 02:44
Food boxes should come with health warning
The following is an opinion article in today's Times in the UK:
Food boxes should come with health warning
Instead of nutritious fresh produce, the frail and sick are sent food that puts them at more risk
I recognise itís hard. I know itís early days. I understand the governmentís under pressure. But I am stunned by the pitifully inadequate food boxes that itís sending out to tens of thousands ó soon to be hundreds of thousands ó of Britainís most medically vulnerable people this week.
This month the (UK) government made a contract with the sickest one and a half million people in the country. These are the individuals who most need to be shielded from the virus. They include cancer patients, transplant survivors, those with compromised immune systems.
Stay at home for 12 weeks, they were told. Donít add to the burden on the NHS. Donít go out, even to shop. If you have no friends or family who can supply you, we will take over, with weekly free deliveries to keep you well and safe.
The first 2,000 deliveries began last Sunday with the communities secretary hulking boxes on TV; 50,000 will go out from the government this week, rising shortly to 400,000. Anyone in the vulnerable category who isnít on the existing list can join it, either online or through their GP.
It is a vital element of our startling new world. Itís bleakly necessary at a time when every commercial online delivery service is so besieged that new slots are weeks away. If people cannot go out to buy for themselves because that creates danger both for them and for others, then the state must step in.
Take a look, then, at what weíre giving one person for a week. I asked the communities ministry what should be in a box. They say they are standard, but may vary slightly.
It is not the nutrient-dense diet a sick person needs. The only complete proteins for a main meal come in just two cans, one of tuna, and one of corned beef. There are two litres of skimmed milk. Thatís it for protein.
Instead, the box is high on carbohydrate, much of it highly processed.
Thereís a packet of fig rolls, a box of chocolate breakfast cereal, a packet of pasta, one white sliced loaf, a packet of potatoes. Three tins of beans, two of starchy marrowfat peas, two of tomatoes, one of peach slices, a jar of pasta sauce, teabags and coffee. There are no fresh vegetables but a little fresh fruit; a small bag of oranges and one of pears.
Itís food to survive on, not to nourish. Even if you split the little tin of tuna into two meals, and the corned beef into three, that leaves meal after meal heavy on starch, low on protein, devoid of the leafy green vegetables essential for cell functions, missing the fats and fat-soluble vitamins our brains and bodies need and crave. As the nutritionist Zoe Harcombe points out, it is short on omega 3, proteins and vitamins A and D in the forms our bodies can absorb.
What would you put on your pasta, potatoes or white sliced loaf for the remaining nine meals, after your breakfast of chocolate cereal or plain toast? Only tomato sauce or beans. Thereís no butter or olive oil, no cheese, no nuts or peanut butter, no eggs. So much of it is food the government tells us to avoid; the low-nutrient, white and sugary food that sends our insulin levels soaring and plunging.
This is, letís remember, not a kind-hearted supplement to someoneís larder. It is intended to be a complete diet, by definition going to those expected to be unable to add to it for months. I asked the communities ministry how the contents had been decided and by whom; all they would say was that it was ďin consultationĒ with the Department of Health.
The reason this matters so deeply is that we are not just trying to give people any old calories to keep them alive. In this pandemic, where there is no cure, whether or not we survive will be critically influenced by the robustness of our individual bodies and immune systems.
The cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra says despairingly that diets high in glucose like this cause chronic inflammation, which makes it harder to fight acute infections when they arrive. We already know from the Italian and Chinese evidence that the people most likely to die from Covid-19 are those whose bodies are already under strain from high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or from being overweight. Which is why we should be maximising the most vulnerable peopleís health, not undermining it.
In one small indication of what might work better than what weíre providing, this January a six-month Dutch study of children with repeated upper respiratory tract infections found that those given green vegetables five times a week, beef three times, whole milk and whole butter every day cut their antibiotic use substantially, and they were sick for a third fewer days than the control group.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, the national alliance for better food and farming, is sympathetic to the governmentís fight on many fronts, but says it must recognise the magnitude of the task it has assumed here.
It is a shame, she points out, that so many meals-on-wheels services have been destroyed by austerity. Now itís as if the state is taking over a care home for 400,000 extremely fragile residents. They need bespoke diets designed by clinical dieticians, differing for those with varying critical conditions, provided in packaging easily opened by weak hands. If they canít get that, malnutrition will follow.
The first packages were a clumsy, well-meaning answer to a complex problem. Now Britain must do better.