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Stephen Jardine: Human rights and burger vans

Published: September 4, 2015

This week, human rights have been under the spotlight like never before. How do they apply to a tiny child found drowned on a beach in Turkey because his family wanted him to have a better life? It is an important issue for us all and it makes a grubby court case in Scotland this week seem particularly crass and stupid.

A group of burger van operators have launched a legal action to overturn a ban introduced to stop them selling junk food to children outside schools in North Lanarkshire. They claim the ban infringes their customers’ human rights.

With almost a third of Scottish youngsters classed as overweight, North Lanarkshire Council acted last year to tackle the issue by introducing a 250-metre exclusion zone around schools to prevent mobile food vans from operating. The council believes it has a “moral duty” to intervene.

Other local authorities take a similar approach but so far North Lanarkshire is the only one to face a legal challenge. And that’s what makes it so important for the council to win. The QC acting for the burger van operators told the civil hearing: “Everyone has the right to choose what kind of food they want to put into their body, no matter now healthy or undesirable that food may be”. Of course they have. These children also have the right to swallow coal, stick their hands in a fire or juggle kitchen knives. However, just like eating every day from a fast food van, these choices are not good for their health.

At home, parents are the major influencers when it comes to what children eat, and growing sales of fruit and veg suggest that task is being taken more and more seriously. However, in school, that responsibility passes to the local authority. With scant resources, North Lanarkshire Council is doing the best it can for these children.

Reporters asked the children for their views. Unsurprisingly, many complained about school meals and said they preferred to eat from vans outside the gates. Well, of course they would. After four hours sitting in the classroom, school meals are another hour sitting in school being told to eat up and behave.

The vans outside the school gates are an escape from all that to an alternative eating environment where no one tries to feed you vegetables.

But it’s also a place where financial inequality rules, OK?

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Scotland has made great strides to take away the stigma of free school meals and to improve the eating experience in schools. There is still a way to go on this, but the simple fact is that the fight against childhood obesity is being fought right now in the school dinner hall. And it’s being lost in the piles of burgers, chips and fizzy drinks being sold outside the school gates. If human rights legislation does exist to allow kids to eat food that makes them unhealthy and die younger, then, sadly, our society has become pretty sick too.

Stephen Jardine is a journalist and presenter and has previously worked for Scottish Television, GMTV and Radio Tay. He now writes a weekly food column for the Scotsman.

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