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Column: If you had an unlimited budget to fix obesity and disease, what would you do?

Good food is inextricably linked to being healthy, so fighting many of our nation’s chronic health problems could start with what we have on our plates, writes Dorcas Barry.

Dorcas Barry

AT THIS YEAR’S Foodcamp in Kilkenny, a day of interesting and informative talks ended with a panel discussion on ‘You Are What You Eat, Fact or Fiction’.

Time constraints must have kicked in, but unfortunately, the topic wasn’t opened to the floor to discuss. I was disappointed as I would have loved an opportunity to answer the question that John McKenna posed to the panel, “If I were James Reilly and could give you an unlimited budget to fix the problems we have with obesity and chronic diseases, what would you do?”

This panel, and another panel which discussed a similar topic I attended on the 17th October 2013 organised by the FSAI, did not come up with any practical solutions to these issues. Although it’s so reassuring that these major issues with regard to our nation’s health are being discussed at every level, I have found the lack of discussion on possible practical solutions frustrating.

Because of the work that I do and the research and reading I have carried out over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and because my family (having been subjected to my rants for so long) have urged me to share my opinions beyond the walls of our home, I would really like to answer your question John McKenna, with three practical solutions I would put into place immediately if James Reilly were to give me an unlimited budget.

Good food is inextricably linked to being healthy

Six months before my father died, a year and a half ago, I went with my mother to bring him to the new St Vincent’s Hospital for a difficult procedure. We were required to wait for most of the day at the hospital, and so ended up having to eat there as we needed to be close-by.

Sitting in the middle of the main restaurant, in this beautiful modern and state-of-the-art hospital, I started to get very upset as I watched tray after tray of food go by, filled with the kind of food that had contributed to patients being in the hospital in the first place. To this day, I still find it so distressing to even think about it.

So the first thing that I would do with Dr Reilly’s money would be to create food outlets and cafes in hospitals which provided nourishing and healing meals, and set the example of the kind of food we need to be eating to be vital and healthy.

We know that educating about food will only ever bring us some of the way, but it’s the experience of delicious, healthy food that will offer the opportunity to make a real difference in positive eating habits. How amazing and progressive would it be if Irish hospitals showed this example and pioneered this experience, creating centres of excellence in every area of hospital life?  Good food is inextricably linked to being healthy, so it seems nothing short of absurd that this ideal would not be presented to the patients and families of patients that spend time in hospitals throughout the country.

Education for pregnant women and new mothers

Secondly, I would create a detailed and comprehensive education programme for pregnant women and new mothers. To make changes to a nation’s habits, it always makes sense to start with new generations, and habits in food are no different. Children form their tastes in the first year of life, making it essential that they are given a large range of healthy foods during this important year, and kept from high fat, high sugar, processed and fast foods during this time.

I would take advantage of the fact that pregnant women and new mothers are very eager and open to information and education on how to do the very best for their children, and create programmes to provide them with all the inspiration and information they would need to do this.

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As we are talking no limits here with regard to budget, I would also include cookery demonstrations and tastings in this education programme, as there is no doubt in my mind, that this is a far more effective way to teach about healthy food.

Teaching children about food

Lastly, I would change the curriculum for National Schools to include a substantial food-based education programme. This would include making edible school gardens mandatory in every school in the country, and also include the means for the children to cook and taste the food that they grow.

The programme would also include recipes that the children would be encouraged to bring home and cook with their families, and I would make this a part of their homework. I would include competitions to bring out the wonderful creative and competitive abilities that children have, and to channel these qualities in a positive direction.

I don’t think that any of these solutions would be beyond the realm of possibility and I sincerely believe they could make a big difference, so please Dr Reilly, could I have the money please?

Dorcas Barry is a nutritional consultant and chef who works in both the private and corporate sectors. Dorcas runs programmes and cookery demonstrations that help people make permanent changes, and illustrate how delicious healthy food can be. Follow her on Twitter @dorcasbarry or visit her website DorcasBarry.com.

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