Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Martin Caraher | Professor of Food and Health Policy | Interview

Martin Caraher being interviewed!
The Mini Cooking Club has been lucky enough to meet Martin Caraher!

Martin is Professor of Food and Health Policy at City University. He has had a distinguished career, working extensively on issues related to food poverty, cooking skills, local sustainable food supplies, the role of markets and co-ops in promoting health, farmers markets, food deserts & food access, retail concentration and globalisation.

In the past, Martin has worked as an environmental health inspector in Dublin, and in the Irish and the English health services managing health promotion and public health services respectively.

Read on for our interview with Martin, at City University, 22.10.13. 

Mini Cooking Club: So, why did you choose your specialist subject, public health and public health promotion?

Martin Caraher: The reason is personal, my background was environmental health for a short time, and I discovered that my colleagues didn't know anything about food, mostly technology and safety. I wanted to know about food and I left the job. I began to see in public health terms that there was a benefit in cooking skills; one of which is nutrition but the others is confidence. It can switch people's lives around and give them confidence in other areas of their lives. We did a survey in 1999, big database work, and we found that it contradicted some notions around cooking. Everybody said the poor can't cook. That may be true but the rich can't cook in equally great numbers – but they can buy their way out of it.

MCC: Was that survey related to Cooking in Crisis?

MC: Yes, that was a national survey, with other colleagues. The only people doing that work now are in the industry. The government doesn't collect this data. Tesco knows much more about our cooking habits than the government does.

MCC: What are your views on Tesco?

MC: Probably unprintable. [Laughter] They're part of a system. Not just Tesco, we're in a system where most of our food is delivered through five major retailers, eight out of every ten pounds is spent in major retailers. What we've got nationally and globally is a vested interest in de-skilling us so we're more dependent on their products.

MCC: It's the illusion of saving time. So what contribution does your research make to this field?

MC: At the moment, I think it encourages a new generation of researchers to look at this area in a slightly different light; but ironically it has made very little impact in the public health field. I think for public health people, cooking is unsexy and they'd rather crunch data or look at issues of disease prevention. Cooking is a very practical prevention issue and I think that's where Jamie Oliver has made an impact: by making it reasonably sexy and something desirable.

MCC: Cooking sometimes seems quite fluffy, rather than talking about health-issues.

MC: Yeah, and yet we know the benefits. The evidence-base has been a bit weak but now we know communities that cook have better health. The UK has a unique set of problems where the culture of cooking is not handed down. Recent research shows that in France and Korea people who cook have healthier lifestyles.

MCC: What do you think is the biggest public health challenge that people in the UK face around food?

MC: Our food sustainability and imports – which is related to a lack of cooking skills. I think cooking gives you skills around knowing where food comes from and what's in season, but the big problem in the UK at the moment is the unsustainable food supply. It is very vulnerable. We've literally got 3-5 days of food in the country so if we have an oil problem, a terrorist problem, or a major chronic disease problem and we shut down the borders, we've got a huge problem.

MCC: Do you think it's a common misconception that the middle classes are more interested in food producers and the joy of cooking?

MC: No, there's quite a lot of research out there that shows low-income people are just as concerned about these issues, but there are other things stopping them accessing local, sustainable or healthy food. Social capital, which may be time, lacking physical facilities, all those things. If you're on a low income and you've got to feed your kids, you may give them a takeaway rather than fresh food because you know they're going to eat it. Shopping practices have changed. People are not doing the big shop at the beginning of the month where they buy things they don't even need. The rise in food prices has made people more aware.

MCC: Do you think the current government doesn't care about low-income groups being able to access food?

MC: Of course not. It's all about personal responsibility but at the moment the poor are being hammered. Benefits are under threat and there is no recognition of families. We still debate notion that people should go back to work and whether full employment is sustainable or not.
The Trussell Trust is opening a new food bank every week because the government has cut off welfare benefits for food. Extending free school meals is a good thing but it's only for reception and the first two years of primary schools. Some boroughs have been doing that anyway, but it's better than nothing.

MCC: What do you think is the main role nutrition charities should play?

MC: I think what we've got to do is scale up, which is not the fault of the charities. Some of the celebrities are saying this will solve all the problems which is very dangerous, because when cooking doesn't solve obesity all that will happen is the government will cut off the funding. I think we need a strategy for it.
We also need to have restrictions on advertising and how stuff is marketed to kids. Food should be brand-free, in my opinion. We need to remove kids from all of those things as part of a big strategy, and then think how we're going to solve the problem of those adults who can't cook, so how are we going to solve that? Whether it's community cooking classes, or linking through schools, I don't know.

MCC: Would you do something less academic like working for the government? You would be the right person to do advise on food policy.

MC: No. I occasionally sit in on committees but working for government you're not allowed to say certain things. No one pays any attention to reports. Evidence is important to me as an academic but it’s not what shifts policy. It's the passion that works. Policy is driven by passion.

MCC: Are you a vegetarian for the environment?

MC: I moved to the west of Ireland in the 70's/80's and food culture was pretty mediocre. The alternative was two vegetarian restaurants and they offered something different. When I stopped working as an environmental health officer, I thought I don't need to eat meat. I think when you're that close to it you can't admit it to yourself. I hadn't had that distance and once I got that, for me it was about the best cuisine being vegetarian.

MCC: If you hadn't specialised in public health, what would you have done instead?

MC: What would I have done? What would I have liked to have done? I'd liked to have been a music critic as I'm not good enough to have been a musician. But, anything you do for joy that becomes a job is probably not as pleasurable.

MCC: Have you had any personal experiences that make you particularly passionate about working in this field? A particular moment in your life?

MC: Grandkids have been the major influence. I've got this wonderful picture of my now-seven year old granddaughter who was two, holding an apple and she's eating it. It's one of those memories of her particularly that invoked in me and my partner a major turning point around food, because it was about their future.

MCC: What is your proudest accomplishment in this field?

MC: I think it's the new generation. I've got five or six people doing PhD's in this area and I think that's the most exciting thing. We’re back to this issue that public health does not look seriously at cooking. It's not sexy or high-tech. I’m proud of actually stimulating a new generation because I want to be sitting in my garden in five years’ time. I don't want to be campaigning forever. I hope the new generation will do that and be working with people like you. That's the plan for the future. It's always the new generation.


Catherine Heath
Our founder, Cecilia Belier, and Martin

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