Published in The Food Magazine 19th Feb 2010
London Assembly Member Jenny Jones, of the Green Party, worries that the Olympics will be a festival of sport, and junk food…
The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will without doubt be one of the most significant premier sporting and cultural events to take place in the capital and will be remembered for decades. Whether you are a supporter or a detractor, it will have a profound effect on the city. The scale and planning necessary to transport and feed the thousands of visitors, the athletes, and workers pouring through London to get to the Olympic venues over this period, will all have an unprecedented impact.
The Games will bring urgently needed regeneration to parts of East London and bring great opportunities for promoting many positive things such as inspiring children and young Londoners to take up sport and other physical activity. However, healthy physical activity can only be achieved if it is fuelled by healthy nutritious food. Here lies the appalling mismatch between the top 2012 sponsors McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and other fast food and drink companies who have successfully secured exclusive marketing rights with the Games and at other major sporting events, or secured sponsorship deals with top athletes, which then continues to perpetuate the perverse link between fast food and drink and sporting achievement.
While I know that London organisers were bound by the International Olympic Committee’s deal with sponsors, I really feel that having McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as official sponsors is a total let down and the IOC really has to reassess the financing of the Games. This should be a showcase for healthy living and an opportunity for inspiring a new generation to lead healthier lives. Not a showcase for ads for fast food and sugary drinks.
I was determined in my former role as the chair of ‘London Food’, the advisory body to the previous Mayor Ken Livingstone, to do what I could to minimise the damage and set up an Olympics food working group with the aim of ensuring that the ambitions of healthy and sustainable food in London’s Food Strategy would be incorporated into the procurement policies for food served at the Games.
I have continued to lobby Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, as well as Sebastian Coe, the chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG), with a 20 point sustainable food and drink plan, to help to ensure that food served at the Olympics will be mostly unprocessed, locally sourced, seasonal, organic, vegetarian, climate friendly, affordable to all income groups, and, if imported, to be fair trade.
LOCOG has tried to reassure me that the presence of McDonald’s will not prevent smaller, local suppliers being involved in the Games. They say that sponsor branded restaurants will sit alongside a full-range of other local food providers and that their Games Food Strategy will ensure that all ‘client groups’ can enjoy a diverse, high quality and affordable range of food and beverage options from unbranded food outlets such as vegetarian, vegan, organic or other ‘client group’.
However, it’s obvious that if these are small businesses, their impact could be negligible to the overall catering of the games and on also on visitors, athletes and workers.
London has the worst rate of obesity in the UK with over a third of London’s children aged 10-11 classed as overweight or obese. The highest rates are in the Olympic host boroughs, either from leading inactive lives and/or depending on a highly processed, high fat, sugar, additive filled fast food and drink diet. This obesity time bomb is a personal and public tragedy and an increasing burden on the health system and tax payer. That is why my top criteria for catering at the Games was for procurement contracts to specify targets of 75% unprocessed, 50% local and 30% organic based on the Soil Association ‘targets for life’.
However LOCOG has argued that it is not a good yardstick and could cause potential distorting effects on local supply chains. I don’t agree with this assumption, as I believe that the private sector should be working towards procurement policies that reflect similar criteria in their catering contracts. This type of procurement is already happening in some schools and other parts of the public sector, although I think there is still much more that can be done, given London schools and hospitals serve 110 million meals a year
I have argued for a high proportion of the food to be from vegetarian sources with meat used sparingly and LOCOG has agreed to increase their proportion of menu items that are without meat/fish contents. This reflects research that shows that almost a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with livestock production and this is set to double by 2050.
I will be pressing the Mayor Boris Johnson on this, but he has made his astonishing personal views clear, that we should eat lots of meat as an act of defiance against UN recommendations to eat less meat. It’s time that the Mayor of London read the report of his own food experts which shows the huge climate change impact of food consumed in London. He should look at reducing red meat consumption at City Hall to give a lead.
On animal welfare, it is disappointing that the Mayor Boris Johnson, in a formal answer to myself, last year failed to guarantee that all poultry served at the Olympics will come from free range sources as a minimum standard, instead stating that LOCOG would be setting a ‘target’ for RSPCA Freedom Food Certified poultry. Sadly this is reflected in the recent LOCOG Olympic Food Strategy. Given that McDonald’s is communicating to its customers that its eggs are free range, it is totally bewildering why LOCOG is not applying the same standards to all the poultry they will be serving at the Games!
The previous Mayor Ken Livingstone was awarded a ‘good egg award’ by Compassion in World Farming for his free range poultry procurement policies in City Hall and Boris should take the free range poultry baton and demand this basic animal welfare standard as a minimum.
For regional and UK farmers this is a great opportunity to benefit from the Games. LOCOG should specify in contracts given to Olympic caterers that all food ingredients, such as meat, vegetables and fruits, that are grown regionally or in the UK, should only come from UK sources. It is not clear at this stage to what extent the Olympics will help UK farmers.
One of the great ideas from Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, and put into the 20 criteria for the London Games by London Food, was building on the Vancouver Games’ commitment for new food growing sites. Sustain now runs ‘Capital Growth’ – a London Food supported project which has undertaken to create 2,012 new food growing sites including community gardens, allotment and roof gardens, by the time the Games start. This was adopted by Rosie Boycott, the current chair of London Food, and Boris Johnson, as one of the key programmes of the current London Food Strategy work. And, it is an ambition that I totally support.
I have argued that, before and during the Games, there should be visible and engaging food marketing that inspires and informs the young people and Londoners of the merits of healthy eating and its role in sports. The understanding of seasonal, local and organic produce available and the benefits of various eating habits for the local and global environment should also be advanced - and this could include high profile athletes promoting healthy and sustainable food. LOCOG has agreed to look at this idea and I hope it will prevent world class athletes from accepting very lucrative sponsorship contracts that continue to link sporting achievement with fast food or energy drinks.
I have also argued that, alongside the Games, there should be a huge food festival that showcases the best of British cuisines, seasonal, local and diverse produce reflecting the diversity of London’s multi-cultural population. It should include regional beverages, such as wine and beer, although it may have to take place outside of the Games’ venues.
To date, LOCOG has made some positive commitments: agreeing to a complete exclusion of fish species and stocks identified by the Marine Conservation Society as fish ‘to avoid’, with all fish served to be from demonstrably sustainable stocks. All tea, coffee, sugar and bananas will be fair-trade, with chocolate being either faitrade certified or ethically sourced. Local, small medium enterprises and black and minority ethnic groups have been specifically targeted as suppliers that can bid for business; and a there is a commitment to provide high quality food at affordable prices so that low income groups are not excluded.
I understand there has not been a food strategy at previous Olympics Games and the London Olympics will be the first. Much has been achieved but much has still to be fought for so that the incredible diversity of food variety, rich cuisines and food cultures that exist are no longer overshadowed in the lives of so many Londoners whose experience of food is limited to fried, highly processed, high fat, salt and sugar foods from the fast food and drink industry.