Exactly a decade has passed since Jamie Oliver breezed into the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham — a place where stodge and junk food had become the daily staple for many residents — and announced a typically audacious plan.
By teaching a handful of ‘guinea pigs’ to cook nutritious meals, then encouraging them to pass the recipes to family members and friends, he would trigger a chain-reaction transforming the majority of its 260,000 population into paragons of healthy eating.
Furthermore, the celebrity chef declared brashly in October 2008, as he kicked off an inspirational new TV series, entitled Jamie’s Ministry of Food, Rotherham would shake off its chips-and-gravy image to be hailed as ‘the culinary capital of the United Kingdom’.
It was a laudable idea and a brave one — not least because Oliver had suffered humiliation in the town two years previously when he’d launched his crusade to improve the nutritional quality of Britain’s school dinners.
Two mothers famously rebelled against the initiative and were photographed pushing packets of chips to hungry pupils through the railings of a local comprehensive school.
The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver declared brashly in October 2008, above, as he kicked off an inspirational new TV series, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, that Rotherham would shake off its chips-and-gravy image to be hailed as ‘the culinary capital of the United Kingdom’
Now Rotherham is back in the news — for all the wrong reasons.
Already branded ‘the Fat Capital of Britain’ because it has the nation’s worst level of obesity, it has been shamed in a shocking report revealing how our high streets have been swamped by takeaway outlets whose fast-food can cause serious health problems.
Flying in the face of Oliver’s healthy eating campaign, the new figures reveal how the number of takeaways in the town has almost doubled in the past eight years, and now comprises almost 60 per cent of all its food retailers — a damning indictment of the town’s dietary habits.
This week, when I visited this woebegone community, which has never recovered from the loss of its once-famed coal and steel industry, and is still suffering the fall-out from the child-sex grooming scandal, the failure of Oliver’s second great dietary experiment here was grimly apparent.
McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Rotherham. Within an easily-walkable radius, I counted no fewer than 21 fast-food premises — Kebabish, Pronto, Mama’s Kitchen, Raja’s, Pak Hoo House, New York Diner and Take Away, Flavours, Jazzi’s. The list went on — and on
Amid depressing scenes of urban decay, the building in All Saints Square, where he set up a kitchen to educate people in the art of wholesome cooking, now stands boarded up, a fate that has befallen a quarter of the town centre’s shops and offices.
Having passed into the hands of a charity after the TV series was screened, prompting accusations that its famous founder had lost interest as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, it was forced to close last year when, faced with a £42million budget shortfall, Rotherham council cut £72,500 from its funding.
Just up the hill, the Rotherham Institute of Obesity, a pioneering weight-loss centre set up in 2009, when the town was still riding the wave of a health-kick, also shut down a year ago, despite helping its 7,000 patients to lose a total of 33.7 tonnes — again because the cash-strapped council withdrew its £300,000 grant.
A nearby gym recently closed for lack of custom, too, though the JD Wetherspoon pub beneath it was doing a brisk trade this week.
Ironically, given Oliver’s mission, the only businesses that appeared to be truly thriving were the plethora of takeaways that have colonised the inner reaches of the town.
Within an easily-walkable radius, I counted no fewer than 21 fast-food premises — Kebabish, Pronto, Mama’s Kitchen, Raja’s, Pak Hoo House, New York Diner and Take Away, Flavours, Jazzi’s.
The list went on — and on. They offered every imaginable variety of quick, calorie-laden meal: pizzas, curries, burgers, kebabs, Chinese, Caribbean and desserts.
Yet by far the busiest of them was McDonald’s, yards from Jamie’s healthy food kitchen. During lunch and teatime on Wednesday, its electronic ordering machine rattled off a meal every 30 seconds, and the counter queue snaked back to the door.
Rotherham has understandably been singled out following this week’s report, not only because Jamie Oliver made those grandiose pronouncements ten years ago, but because it had already been branded ‘Britain’s fat capital’ [File photo]
Like many customers I spoke to, Katie Antcliff, 28, a single mother who polished off a burger while her daughter Sydney, aged six, and son Jamie, five, tucked into Happy Meals (washed down, of course, with fizzy drinks) insisted she only took her family there for ‘an occasional treat’.
‘We honestly never have takeaways when we’re at home. I’d rather cook,’ Miss Antcliff, who had spent £8 of her welfare benefits on the meal, told me.
Her children, who had consumed much of their recommended daily intake of 1,400 calories in just that one meal, made it very clear they preferred ‘Mac Dee’s’.
They are by no means alone. According to an alarming report released this week, compiled by the BBC using new figures from the Office for National Statistics, Britain is in the greasy grip of a fast-food epidemic.
During the past eight years, the report reveals, the number of takeaway outlets has soared by a third, and is at its highest since figures were first collected in 2010.
Moreover, as takeaways often represent at least half of all the food on sale in our high streets, healthy meal options are increasingly hard to obtain.
Rotherham now has about 170 takeaways and they account for 58 per cent of all its food outlets.
Only eight of our 215 counties and metropolitan regions have a higher percentage. However, when it comes to the ratio of fast-food premises per 100,000 of the population, it is not the worst town in the country.
In tourist traps such as Westminster and Blackpool, the density is far higher. Unenviably, Glasgow, Manchester, South Tyneside, Newcastle, Camden in north-west London, Sunderland, Hull and Belfast also rank among the top 10 in the fast-food league table.
However, Rotherham has understandably been singled out following this week’s report, not only because Jamie Oliver made those grandiose pronouncements ten years ago, but because it had already been branded ‘Britain’s fat capital’.
It was saddled with this shameful soubriquet last year, when Public Health England figures revealed that three-quarters of its adult population were either obese or overweight; the highest proportion of any town or city in the country.
Perhaps more worryingly, according to separate figures, more than one-fifth of Rotherham’s Year 6 children (aged ten and 11) and 10 per cent of reception year children (aged four and five) were classed as ‘obese’.
Academics are in little doubt that there is a direct causal link between the increased number of takeaway outlets and the obesity crisis.
Britain is in the greasy grip of a fast-food epidemic. During the past eight years, the report reveals, the number of takeaway outlets has soared by a third [File photo]
After monitoring the long-term consumption of takeaway food by 5,000 people, and allowing for factors known to influence obesity, such as education, income and smoking, Cambridge University epidemiologists concluded that those with the readiest access to takeaways were nearly twice as likely to be obese compared with those least exposed to them.
‘Our research suggests that policies to make our neighbourhoods more healthy by restricting access to takeaway food might be successful,’ concludes Dr Thomas Burgoine, who led the landmark study. Data from the National Obesity Observatory also shows a strong correlation between areas of urban deprivation — and parts of Rotherham certainly come into that category — and an increased density of fast-food premises.
Anyone who has travelled to the poorest parts of the United States, where junk-food outlets dominate the cityscape, and seen the blue-collar folk who subsist on the cheap sludge they churn out, waddling around in outsized clothes (or riding buggies because their legs will no longer carry them) will know this to be true.
Unless the takeaway boom is curbed, and we stop gorging on fat and sugar-laden gunk, it is only a matter of time before such scenes are commonplace here. Experts believe the fast-food upsurge is contributing to any number of life-threatening diseases, costing the NHS billions, from type 2 diabetes to coronary heart failure.
In the depressed Welsh region of Blaenau Gwent, which has Britain’s highest proportion of takeaways — 55 of its 75 food outlets —and, surely not coincidentally the highest obesity rates in Wales, Professor Nadim Haboubi already speaks of a full-blown ‘societal disease’.
However, the expert in Clinical Nutrition and Obesity at the University of South Wales declines to blame the takeaway owners who profit from the rising demand.
To order a takeaway and a few cans of lager might cost you a tenner, whereas it costs a lot more to cook a meal from scratch,’ one young man surmised [File photo]
He attributes the alarming trend largely to idleness and ignorance.
‘People are under the impression that takeaways are cheaper (than cooking at home),’ he told the Mail. ‘I think part of it is education and laziness. I’m fairly certain there’s a link between those who don’t cook and obesity. It’s not that they don’t have time to cook; they would rather watch television and get takeaways from the fish and chip-shop next door.’
Sadly, judging by the blasé attitude of Rhys Leyshon, 23, who explained his fast-food fixation while buying a ready meal in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent, he is right.
‘To order a takeaway and a few cans of lager might cost you a tenner, whereas it costs a lot more to cook a meal from scratch,’ he surmised. ‘Pizza, a six-pack of lager, Netflix and chill out, you can’t beat that, can you?’
It is a sentiment that would doubtless be echoed in places such as Hull, where we found a parade of shops featuring ten takeaways within 100 yards.
Or in Blackpool, whose fast-food shops have more than doubled in a decade, from 70 to 135, and where 83,000 of the 140,000 population are overweight, including one-third of the resort’s children.
So what can be done to save Britain’s ever-growing legion of takeaway junkies from scoffing themselves into an early grave?
The most obvious solution is for local authorities to enforce strict planning regulations restricting the number of new takeaways in their area.
Unless the takeaway boom is curbed, and we stop gorging on fat and sugar-laden gunk, it is only a matter of time before such scenes of obesity, as seen in the United States are commonplace here [File photo]
Though that might mean losing out on business rates, particularly in towns where a large number of premises are vacant, many councils are taking a tougher line.
So what can be done to save Britain’s ever-growing legion of takeaway junkies from an early grave? The most obvious solution is for local authorities to enforce strict planning regulations restricting the number of new takeaways in their area. Though that might mean losing out on business rates, many councils are taking a tougher line.
Rotherham is among them. It recently introduced a Hot Food Takeaways policy, to ‘address the proliferation of takeaways to help maintain the economic vitality and viability of the town… and promote healthy lifestyles.’
Under the rules, prospective fast-food vendors will not be granted a licence if their premises are within 800 metres of a school, nor where they result in a ‘clustering’ of similar businesses.
At least, that is the theory. But, as Yorkshire folks might say, in practice some of these regulations are proving to be a fat lot of use.
For when KFC hired high-powered planning consultants to challenge the legality of the 800-metre ruling — arguing that it would ‘simply restrict choice’ for diners — and McDonald’s also complained, saying they had changed their menu to make it healthier, their objections were upheld by the national planning inspector.
Local Labour MP Sarah Champion was angered by the decision. ‘Local councils are best placed to make decisions around their own planning,’ she told me.
‘They know the community so they can make choices based on their overall need. It can’t be right that big food chains can use their weight to overturn local planning decisions. How is that democratic?’
How indeed. Nonetheless, talking to Rotherham’s takeaway clientele this week, a preponderance of whom were unmistakably stout beneath their amorphous clothing, the general view was that it was not for the authorities to change our eating habits.
Cambridge University epidemiologists concluded that those with the readiest access to takeaways were nearly twice as likely to be obese [File photo]
Since we cherish our freedom of choice, and information about healthy eating habits is routinely rammed down our throats, the consensus was that individuals should decide for themselves what they eat, healthy or otherwise.
Certainly that is the view of Joe Law, a 20-year-old Rotherham barman who, as a teenager, fell victim to the lure of cheap fast food, ballooning to 30 stone by spending his school dinner money on Chinese takeaways every day of the week.
‘I don’t think people can blame the takeaway owners for running their businesses, or the council for not shutting them down. People should take responsibility for their own actions,’ he said.
Having lost an astonishing 18 stone in the past four years, Mr Law — who used to take up two plane seats when travelling on holidays — is living proof that fast-food addicts can turn their lives around by sheer self-discipline.
Ironically, his mentor was his regular fast-food delivery driver, a fitness fanatic who, seeing he was deeply unhappy with his size, gave him dietary advice and interested him in body-building. Mr Law made another salient point. Many people, including his friends, are lucky enough to eat takeaway food regularly without putting on huge amounts of weight, but that doesn’t mean their arteries aren’t being clogged with fat.
Meanwhile, back in McDonald’s, at teatime last Wednesday, Simon Oran, 52, a trim, health-conscious grandfather who resolutely refused to touch a solitary chip whilst treating his daughter and four granddaughters to burgers, fries, chicken nuggets and ice-cream, offered a sardonic perspective.
Anyone who has travelled to the poorest parts of the United States, where junk-food outlets dominate the cityscape, and seen the blue-collar folk who subsist on the cheap sludge they churn out, waddling around in outsized clothes [File photo]
‘Do you know why there are so many people in here?’ he mused, gazing at tables packed with uniformed children and indulgent mums. ‘It’s because a lot of people in Rotherham these days are so hard-up they can’t even afford to buy a cooker.
‘As for that Jamie Oliver, he did nowt for this town. He just dragged us down. The impression he gave was that we were all on benefits. We were easy targets for the likes of him, a stuck-up middle-class idiot who was using us for self-publicity. We’ve never recovered from that.’
Since we cherish our freedom of choice, and information about healthy eating habits is routinely rammed down our throats, the consensus was that individuals should decide for themselves what they eat, healthy or otherwise [File photo]
He was cut short by his daughter, Michaela Fox, 28, a psychology student, who ventured that, in Rotherham’s case, the fast-food explosion might be connected to the high number of young, single parents, who may not have the time or energy to cook.
Not having been educated by their own parents in the benefits of healthy eating, she said, they might not realise how cheap and easy it is — and how much better for you — to buy some meat and fresh vegetables and put them in a slow-cooker.
Her sorry indictment left one wondering whether Rotherham has moved on at all in the 12 years since ‘chipgate’ and the rejection of healthier school meals.
A council spokesman insisted it is striving to make residents slimmer and healthier. ‘High obesity levels are not new for Rotherham and there are many contributing and complex factors.
‘But it’s important to recognise that levels have not increased as a result of particular services coming to an end.
‘We are seeing a high level of economic growth and we’re confident that, as the borough continues to prosper, this will bring a better quality of life for our residents. With decreasing levels of deprivation we would expect obesity levels to decline, too.’
We must hope so. Yet as I departed this wobbling epicentre of Britain’s takeaway-driven obesity epidemic, another sobering thought struck me.
How long before the abandoned Ministry of Food building, where the well-meaning Jamie dreamed of turning stodge addicts into salad-lovers, is rented out as another takeaway?