14th August 2020

Culture / Featured / Food / Mark McCabe

Reap What You Sow: Mark McCabe

80 6 mins 0

HHead Chef at The Ethicurean restaurant, Mark McCabe, discusses the need to re-establish the connection between consumer and food producer. This is an important debate of which Mark has some considered and realistic answers.

My old primary school has a good-sized football pitch behind it on which I spent many an hour playing as a kid. It’s surrounded by trees that were great for climbing and beyond that fields at times filled with potatoes or grain or, if we were very lucky, peas or carrots which we used to munch on as we traipsed across the countryside on weekend adventures.

At some point in the many years since I left primary school, there must have been an initiative to get the kids planting trees and flowers around the border of the pitch and this has resulted in a reasonably sized orchard, some well-endowed hazelnut trees and a patch of insanely overgrown wildflowers.

On visits home, I’ve watched these trees growing, first with pleasure, then with excitement and finally with disbelief as every year, without fail, the entire crop of apples, nuts, elderberries and rowan were allowed to ripen and then drop to the ground and rot.

I couldn’t help thinking back to those trees when the government announced it’s latest ‘war on obesity’. Don’t get me wrong, plans to ban two for one offers on junk food, end advertising of sugary treats before the watershed and provide information on calorie content are all useful things to do, but without real change to our country’s food system, it is nothing more than the proverbial plaster on a gunshot wound.

We have become almost completely disconnected from where our food comes from, in a world where convenience trumps all.

Mark McCabe

Supermarkets offer us an almost mind-boggling array of ingredients but in a completely sanitised way – every little thing that linked them to the land it came from has been washed, polished and packaged away.

One of the slight benefits the hospitality sector saw from lockdown was people’s willingness to shop locally again. With the supermarkets empty and restrictions on how far we could travel there was a significant uptake on artisanal foods which always leads to better understanding and communication between the food makers or farmer and the consumer. With children off school as well there was no reason for them not to tag along to the local farm shop and see a little of where their food actually comes from.

Re-establishing that connection between consumer and producer, showing people how food is grown and the amount of work that goes into growing is going to be far more important in undoing our country’s unhealthy relationship to food than blanket rules and calorie counts. We need a fundamental change to the whole system, starting with investment in education so that children can be taught the benefits and joy of cooking at an early age. I know I wouldn’t have been the only one to enjoy going out to pick apples from the football pitch at school to be shown how to make a crumble or pie with them. I was fortunate enough to have a mum who did that instead but many children aren’t so lucky.

A 2017 survey by the British Nutritional Foundation spoke to 27,500 children and found that 25% of 8-11 year olds think cheese comes from plants and 1 in 10 thought that pasta came from animals. The stats aren’t much better for adults either. A 2007 study found that 22% of adults didn’t know that bacon and sausages came from farms.

Digging deeper, we cannot ignore the damage that rising poverty and inequality are doing to the diets of the poorest in our society. Foodbank use has risen exponentially in the past ten years and low-income households have seen their incomes drop by 5% since 2016 – even before the pandemic hit. As people get poorer it stands to reason that they will buy the cheapest food available to them, regardless of nutritional content.

Cheap meat, from animals raised in factory farms, has been shown to contain less omega 3s and higher unsaturated fats than meat raised to organic standards. The animals are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent the illnesses that are rife in such enclosed spaces and this practice is greatly speeding up the rise of antibiotic resistant bugs. Despite this, farmers are given far greater government subsidies based on how large their farms are than how well they care for their animals or the environment. This system means that the smaller, bio-diverse farms are unable to qualify for funding despite producing healthier food in a more environmentally sound manner.  By the time we get to the supermarket, this equates to the choice between a £3 factory farmed chicken or a £15 organic one.

And yet we still continue to blame people for eating unhealthy food. Calorie counts on food will not prevent people from eating bad food if it's all they can afford.

Mark McCabe

Stopping companies from advertising their highly processed products before 9 pm will not eliminate the draw and convenience of them in the supermarket. We need to educate people. We need to show them how to cook and how to reconnect with food – where it comes from, how it is made and what died to provide it.

My old primary school had the right idea but fell so short. Show children how to plant and grow things, let them see the magic of watching a seed sprout into a seedling and then flourish into a plant that produces real and tasty food. Let them pick it and show them how to cook it. Let them taste how delicious it can be. Keep doing that and eventually, we will see people shopping and cooking with confidence – avoiding processed meals because they can and not because they are told to.

With a little effort and some imagination, there’s no telling what those seeds might grow into.


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Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe is a chef who writes in his spare time. Or a musician who cooks in his spare time. Or a writer who takes photos sometimes. Or an anxious man all of the time. He is currently the head chef at The Ethicurean.

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