Sunday, 19 March 2017

20 million reasons that challenged my notion of comfort food

I find cooking very calming and relaxing – almost therapeutic. Some describe cooking as inspirational, but for me, after a long day at work, cooking is a wonderful way to unwind. My evening meal is my main meal of the day so I like to make it special. Not only does the act of preparing food interest me, but it gives me an opportunity to do something for others. I’m an idiosyncratic cook. If you come to our house you will be fed a vegetarian meal on every day of the year except Christmas Day, when I will prepare a turkey for guests who like a traditional meat dinner.

For 99% of the time I am very happy to do all the family shopping and cooking. However, at one time, the one meal that W would always cook for me was a ‘welcome home’ meal to mark my return from a conference trip. In those heady days, as a full time academic, I was invited to speak at many conferences. During the last 15 years I have been fortunate to have presented over 120 papers at conferences in 14 countries. Whilst international travel might sound glamorous, it usually wasn’t. It could be very tiring and emotionally draining. I like my own bed to sleep in, and from a food point of view, often the vegetarian options offered were bland, unimaginative and poorly prepared.

So for many years, I would come home from my travels, get unpacked, have a shower and then sit down to one of my favourite meals. Some people may be surprised when I say the meal was always ‘eggs and chips, baked beans, mushrooms, bread and butter and all washed down with a pot of tea’. It was pure comfort food. But for me, it was symbolic in marking a return to the normal social order of life. These days, both presenting papers at conferences and eating this meal in particular, are both becoming rare events.

These memories were brought to mind in my reading of the report from the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled Cheap as Chips. This explores the widely held belief that eating healthily is more expensive than ‘junk food’ and that poor diets, resulting in obesity, are directly caused by economic deprivation. What the research shows however is, that measured by edible weight, healthier foods sold in supermarkets tend to be cheaper than less healthy food. Indeed, the recommendation that we all eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day can be achieved for as little as 30p a day!

What we eat featured in the media all last week as it was Nutrition and Hydration Week. This was originally an annual event concerned with promoting the importance of nutrition and hydration in health and social care settings. These days it aims to raise awareness and focus energy, activity and engagement on the importance of nutrition and hydration as a fundamental element in maintaining the health and well-being of people across the global community. Over the week a great deal of helpful advice was made available for people of all ages. In particular I was drawn to the research published by the Malnutrition Task Force, that had found over 5 million people living in the UK and aged over 60 thought it was perfectly normal to lose weight as you get older. This despite weight loss being an early warning sign of health problems. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK, over the age of 65, are thought to be malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.

By no means could I be described as being malnourished. However, last week my smugness and contentment over the role food plays in my life was severely challenged. As I was driving home I listened to a story on the radio of a young boy living in Somalia, who was suffering the near fatal effects of dehydration. He had been brought to a field hospital by his Father and was in a comatose state, almost lifeless and without immediate help almost certain to die within 30 mins. His life was saved by the action of the medical team working in a field hospital. Even on the radio, the description of how they saved his life was a graphic and harrowing account. 

The United Nations report that some 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria face starvation through famine and conflict. Stephen O’Brien, responsible for humanitarian aid told the UN Security Council that ‘without collective and co-ordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death’, with many more who ‘will suffer and die from disease’. The UN define famine being when mortality rates are 2 or more deaths per 1000 people every day and when 30% of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition. This shouldn’t be happening. There are many ways you can help in dealing with this situation, and in so doing you will bring comfort and hope to others.