20 September 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

One of the abiding concerns of parents, teachers and others with responsibility for young people is the problem of childhood obesity.

The emergence of sedentary and unhealthy eating habits among the young has been flagged as a lifestyle manifestation requiring urgent address at a number of public forums in Co Monaghan in recent times, with warning signals emerging from the former Vocational Education Committee and at several meetings of Monaghan Co Council.

That the problem has become a significant one despite the accentuated awareness in our culture of the benefits of regular exercise and a sensible and balanced diet seems surprising – until one considers the unprecedented availability of processed, sugar-rich food retailing cheaply and backed by very sophisticated and pervasive marketing stratagems.

All of us, but perhaps children and teenagers in particular, are subjected to an information tug-of-war about this element of our lifestyle choices: messages to live and eat healthily competing with the allure of fast food advertising on which major retail chains and global corporate entities spend lavishly.

Given the marketing power of the producers of the problematic foodstuffs, the contest will always be weighted somewhat in their favour.

However, a factor that has added weight to the “pull factor” on the side of the unhealthy choices in recent times has undoubtedly been the way in which the current economic downturn has accentuated the disparity of wealth already existing in the Irish nation.

The burden placed on households by having to carry the cost of the banking collapse has reduced income and spending power for many – a situation exacerbated in some instances by reduction or total loss of employment.

As the downturn has gone on, fewer and fewer families remain in the “recession-proof” category – but for those who had to struggle on limited incomes to begin with, the further economic stringencies they have had to endure have undoubtedly delivered adverse consequences for their health and that of their children.

Faced with reduced household budgets, some families are undoubtedly making food purchase choices in which cheapness rather than nutrition is the determining factor.

Admirably, many retailers in our community have been cognisant of the depleted spending power available to their customers and have made efforts to assist them through special offers or emphasising the important message that cheap food does not have to mean unhealthy food.

Fresh vegetables and fruit and the less expensive cuts of meat are sources of dietary variety and nutrition that come within the compass of most families – but, despite some good promotional endeavours at retail level and the attempts of health agencies to assist them, this message is often swamped by the branding and “push” which manufacturers give to economy-priced processed food.

Because of the economic condition of the country, there are many more young people subsisting on diets that are not good for them – a fact that seems to be blithely ignored by the Government and the Department of Health.

Correspondence recently issued by the Dept to Monaghan Co Council in response to its concerns on the obesity issue (see story inside this week) detailed the efforts being made through agencies such as the Special Action Group on Obesity and Healthy Ireland to address the problem through educative programmes and ongoing engagement with representatives of the food and drink sector.

The efforts are worthy and admirable – but would it not have a more immediate impact on the problem if October’s Budget contained some measure of relief for hard-pressed households from the ration of austerity that has been their annual portion since the current Government took office?

Initial pronouncements this week from relevant Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin promised more of the same when the next Budget is unveiled – a blend of cuts and taxes shaken a little in the cocktail mixer, perhaps, but still likely to leave the same bitter taste in the mouths of the public who have to endure them.

But surely the Ministers’ Cabinet colleague Dr James Reilly from the vantage of his Health portfolio is clearly aware that unremitting austerity is having very real adverse impacts on the health of the nation – slowly impoverishing people takes away the means by which they sustain good physical health through diet, and can also sap the will and morale necessary to maintain good mental well-being.

Various arguments are currently being advanced, underpinned by a mixture of political and economic ideologies, as to why the October Budget should be made somewhat less severe than its immediate predecessors.

But surely the most compelling case for a little alleviation of the austerity this Government has so far dealt us can be drawn from the deterioration of the health and well-being of the nation, among those at the lowest income levels in particular, which the policies being pursued so unremittingly are leading to.

Irish people in a very real way are simply sick of austerity.

Something of a saga has developed at Monaghan Town Council level in recent months over skateboarding activities being indulged in by young people on the plaza area of The Diamond in the town centre.

Public complaints have led to the devising of various strategies designed to dissuade or put an end to this practice, which has caused inconvenience and upset to other users of the location.

News at Monday’s Council meeting that the legal finishing touches are being put to the prohibition of the activity by means of bye-law suggests that the skateboarders are now traversing thin ice and may have to find an alternative location for their exploits.

The danger, of course, is that this measure will merely relocate the problem to another unofficial venue.

There is certainly validity to the gripes of the public which councillors have brought to light in recent times – there is an element of danger and even intimidation to pedestrians and passers-by which the skateboarders themselves may be unconscious or careless about, but which is nonetheless quite real and occasionally unpleasant.

And the danger posed is not confined to the public – some engaged in the activity seem ignorant of the sensible safety precautions that participation demands.

But even those discommoded by the skateboarders’ activities would have to concede that among the young people concerned are some very adept exponents.

And is this phenomenon not eloquent of the dearth of suitable outlets in our town centre for youth recreation, a long-unaddressed need that sometimes leads bored adolescents down even more dangerous and damaging paths than the unofficial skateboard rink?

There are some very good and active organisations at community and county level that offer a forum for young people themselves to articulate their concerns – it would be interesting to hear their views on how this problem, and the wider social deficit it seems to highlight, could be resolved by a means more holistic than mere official prohibition.

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