Kathy Sheridan: Why Tesco should pilot healthy cooking for kids in Ireland

‘Could it address the fact that in five years’ time, if we carry on as we are, the Irish will be the fattest and most unfit people in Europe?’

‘Think what a mammoth such as Tesco could do about that, with its data, reach, and resources.’ Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

‘Think what a mammoth such as Tesco could do about that, with its data, reach, and resources.’ Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

Tesco is having a torrid time. On top of a “profit overstatement” by the parent company, triggering a serious fraud inquiry and sundry firings, the group has just announced the largest writedown in British retail history. As a major Irish employer, it should be attracting concerned, soothing noises. Instead, the prevailing attitude is more of a grim, that’ll teach ’em variety. For years the supermarket empire milked this little outpost for all it was worth. In 2008, for example, its Irish profit margin was more than 9 per cent at a time when the group’s margin was under 6 per cent. No wonder Big Retail dubbed us Treasure Island.

Stories abound of abuses of their dominant position with suppliers. The £250 million hole in Tesco’s books that triggered the fraud inquiry, for example, relates to payments from suppliers. Yes, from suppliers. The Grocer, the British weekly trade bible, carried interviews last year with suppliers who talked about repeated approaches by Tesco buyers, looking for money to fill the holes in the chain’s accounts.

Then there is that vestibule of hell of which Tesco is also a prime exponent: the “superstore”. Symbol of a mission to steamroll every other local business into the dust. In Tesco’s 11,000sq m version some four kilometres from the town of Naas, you can buy a phone, a coat, a cushion or a television, get a haircut or a prescription filled. On a rare visit there, to buy quantities of a well-known beer, I asked a staff member where it was located. He wandered off to inquire and was never seen again during my 20-minute wait.

But surely the germ of hope that is encouraging people to live a little (to quote a discounter rival), must be lifting Tesco’s Irish profits? The chain hasn’t seen an increase in like-for-like sales for three years. A myriad of explanations is offered – the encroachment of the German discounters, smaller baskets, eating out – but there is a sense that Big Retail is facing a major fork in the road.

So what is Tesco to do? In his Guardian column, economist Paul Mason proposes a reinvented Tesco that would (a) promote the social aspect of shopping by reconfiguring the layout and encouraging its staff to engage with customers, and (b) would share with you its vast store of “customer- relationship” data on you (on the basis, he says, that its information on his intake of alcohol, calories and protein could probably predict his time and cause of death), but also share it – in anonymised form, of course – with public-health experts.

That would be radical. But could Tesco attempt something even more selfless? Could it address the fact that in five years’ time, if we carry on as we are, the Irish will be Europe’s fattest and most unfit people?

Pilot for schemes

Think what a mammoth such as

Tesco could do about that, with its data, reach, and resources. Imagine if it used the Republic – just 3.2 per cent of its total floor space – as a pilot for schemes such as walk- in health-check clinics. Or if it spearheaded a scheme to provide basic cookery classes for children in primary school, after school hours. At one large primary school near Dublin the school’s efforts reside in one little mobile “kitchen” that gets trundled around to each class about once a year. Scarce resources and a crowded curriculum allow no more time for what is arguably the most important life skill. (To which I would add meditation and budgeting. One can dream.)

Last December, the launch of an important cross-party report on the growing problem of hunger in Britain was derailed in a few sentences by a Conservative member, Lady Anne Jenkin. “We have lost a lot of our cookery skills. Poor people do not know how to cook,” she said. “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.” “Bitch”, “vermin” and “arrogant arse” were the least of the insults piled on her by social-media posters, who blamed food poverty squarely on low pay, welfare and benefit changes. A community worker on the Guardian forum advised them to cut out the political posturing. “I meet scores of mothers who eat a Rustler burger and feed their kids Heinz baby food because they can’t cook or buy fresh food.”

Cooking skills

Lady Jenkin’s mistake, of course, was to use the word “poor”. She apologised later, but re

iterated her central point: “If people today had the cooking skills that previous generations had, none of us would be eating so much pre-prepared food.”

The answer is to start them young. Yet, in a time- and resource-starved system, primary school teachers are devoting weeks to First Communion preparation, which many believe should be conducted outside school hours.

Is this the best we can do for our children, in the face of our greatest health challenge? Come on, Tesco. Surprise us.

My colleague Jim Carroll is organising a Dublin Banter on the future of food shopping with a broad panel of retail experts (including Tesco), on May 20th. Details on his blog. Twitter: @KathySheridanIT

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