Getting hot under the collar about ice-cream vans

Tackling obesity is not about regulation, it’s about educating parents and children

It’s not up to Government to play rounders with children in Ireland, it’s up to parents. Photograph: Getty Images.

It’s not up to Government to play rounders with children in Ireland, it’s up to parents. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 01:00

If one were to make a list of priorities concerning child welfare in Ireland, ice cream is probably not “up there”. Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, an enemy of ice cream cones everywhere, thinks otherwise, raising the issue in the Seanad, and not doing those in favour of the retention of that House of the Oireachtas any flavours, sorry, favours.

The “persistent use of chimes in public streets and in estates is an aggressive form of selling and it wouldn’t be countenanced in any other industry”, Noone said about the scourge of ice-cream vans roaming our streets with impunity. I can think of many aggressive forms of selling, but the off-key melody to Mary Had A Little Lamb playing over a speaker isn’t one of them.

Noone said there was one particularly persistent ice cream van in Wexford, and a mother told her the van’s presence was leading to rows with one of her children about whether she should allow that child have ice cream and slushy drinks. Call an emergency sitting of the Dáil!

That reminds me, I must get on to my local TD because the other day, my flatmate took the milk out of the fridge and didn’t put it back. Was it for this the wild geese spread? Surely, at this stage, there needs to be some legislative intervention to encourage return-to-fridge milk action?

Political oratory

In what was one of the great examples of political oratory in recent times, the demon ice cream vans were debated.

One Senator, close to tears, rose to his feet: “Life springs from death, and from the vans of patriot ice lollies spring living treats. The defenders of this realm have worked well in estates and on country roads. They think they have satisfied Ireland. They think they have purchased half a 99 and intimidated the other half.

“They think they have foreseen sprinkles, think they have provided against Wibbly Wobbly Wonders; but the food, the food, the food! They have left us our melted Tangle Twister, and while Ireland holds these cones, Ireland defrosted will never have a piece.” OK, maybe that bit didn’t happen.

Noone has form in rallying against sugar, previously highlighting the level of sugar in caramel frappuccinos. She also recently said “banning” running in the schoolyard meant children were losing out on an opportunity to exercise during breaktime. Sugar, obesity and a prescriptive approach to both are obviously Noone’s thing. She is of course right, but unfortunately frames her arguments in a manner open to trivialisation.

Tackling obesity is not about regulating the chimes of ice ream vans; it’s about educating parents and their children about what is healthy to eat and what isn’t. Health-conscious people are up against it. The sugar industry is having its Big Tobacco moment, with a growing number of books and documentaries examining the increase in sugar in our food and its addictive properties, and of course, the terrible consequences for public health.

Irish shops are loaded with an endless array of crisps, sweets and trashy, processed food. Breakfast bars and cereals are loaded with sugar, masking themselves as “healthy”, when you might as well get out of bed and lay into a Snickers. Ireland is fat. A whopping 66 per cent of Irish men over 20 are overweight or obese, while the figure for women over 20 is 50.9 per cent.

So, what can we do? A Raspberry Sauce and Flake (Amendment) Act of 2014 isn’t the answer. Education is, as is getting kids fit at a young age. Parents should be aware that every hour the young ones spend messing with a phone or at a laptop is an hour they could be outside working off those Cornettos. It’s not up to Government to play rounders with children in Ireland, it’s up to parents. By the time food regulation comes into the picture, the flabby horse will have bolted.

Nannyish regulation

Regulation is a hot topic at the moment in the culinary centre of the world, New York. A ban former mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated meant restaurants and delis were prohibited from selling sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces. It was eventually deemed unconstitutional, but current mayor Bill de Blasio is supportive of reinstating it, citing the city’s obesity and diabetes issues. The problem with regulation in these terms is: where do you stop? Four years ago in south Los Angeles, a fast-food ban came into effect, meaning no new fast-food outlets could open within a 32-mile radius.

Both of these types of regulation feel nannyish, and while the sugar industry’s clout will become more and more scrutinised over the next few years, let’s not pretend the message of eating healthily and exercising regularly is a revelation. Yes it’s hard, and yes sugar-filled foods are thwarting parents and children at every juncture, but absolving oneself of that simple common sense is just flakey.

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