Warren Draper talks about the region of Doncaster and how we have been affected by the daily foods we consume and what the impacts are.

Words: Warren Draper

Photography: Warren Draper

As a region, Doncaster currently has the second highest proportion of overweight and obese people in the country. At 74.4%, nearly three-quarters of us, including myself, are officially overweight.

We may be one of the worst cases nationally, but we’re far from alone. As far back as 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognised obesity as a global epidemic. In 2014, a study in the Lancet estimated that the number of overweight adults in the world in 2013 was 2.1 billion, over double the 857 million estimated in 1980. Studies have found that it’s not a case of people being lazy or greedy, but the result of a combination of genetic predetermination, poverty and, arguably the single most influential cause of the global epidemic, ‘obesogenic environments’.

Many humans carry genetic markers, which will make them susceptible to both weight gain and addictive personalities. Our genetic make-up can make life harder, but an understanding of it makes it possible to adjust our lives, so that we avoid situations which will make it harder for us to control our weight. Unfortunately, living in poorer areas like Doncaster does narrow our choices.

There is a direct correlation between poverty and obesity. Supposedly cheaper foods – when we start buying fresh veggies instead of processed ready meals we actually start to save money – are cheap because they are full of low-nutrition bulking agents, such as palm oil and whey powder, which rarely do our bodies any significant good and which often have disastrous environmental impact. Palm oil is threatening the survival of orangutans in the wild, but it’s hard to find any processed food nowadays which doesn’t include it in the ingredients. High-fat, high-sugar, processed foods are already highly addictive, but that doesn’t mean the advertising men hold back when it comes to trying to sell you their brands. Which brings us to the third, and perhaps the most important, problem of them all.

Obesogenic environments are, as the name suggests, environments which encourage obesity. Unfortunately, modern life has become one giant obesogenic environment. In terms of the immediate physical environment, both myself and my old friend, the mysterious Greenjacker, have previously highlighted the problem of Donny ‘food deserts’, where it’s easier to buy kebab than kale. These days, it seems like every other shop is a fast food joint, but very few of Donny’s satellite towns are lucky enough to have a dedicated greengrocer anymore. Unlike the greengrocer’s paper bags, the waste from fast food joints also makes up a very large percentage of the litter which further ruins our physical environment.

The cultural environment is even worse. Every day and everywhere, we are bombarded with tempting ads for so-called convenient, processed foods. The modern penchant for pricey posh processed junk shows that it’s not just a problem for the poor, although the wealthier a person is the easier it is for them to find help. As well as encouraging us to eat nutritionally sub-standard produce, the marketing men are also pushing up the price of healthier alternatives through the development of food fads. This makes it harder for poorer people to access certain foodstuffs and also leads people to believe that they are eating healthily when they are not.

Jackie from The Masons Arms, who along with places like Pure Lunch offers one of the healthiest menus available in Doncaster, tells me of her concerns about the trendy ‘superfood’ label. Jackie knows her stuff when it comes to food – we enjoyed a wonderful Doncopolitan chow down at the Masons’ earlier in the year and I can heartily recommend the sharing platters – and she is sick and tired of the marketing myths. Knowledge is the most important and powerful tool we have in the fight against obesity – knowledge of what our bodies really need and understanding of the negative pressures we face on a daily basis. Thankfully, people like Jackie and Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council’s Jennefer Holmes, who is in the process of launching a range of anti-obesity strategies in the borough, are leading the way when it comes to sharing information and dispelling misinformation.

Knowledge is essential, but to make a real difference in Doncaster it must be accompanied by access to affordable, fresh, healthy food. This magazine has always emphasised the need to build a stronger, more resilient and sustainable local economy, so now we’re gonna walk the walk and work towards building Donny’s first urban farm as part of a borough-wide good food strategy.

Bentley Urban Farm will see the former horticultural training centre at the back of Bentley High Street School brought back into use as a market garden. We will use a range of techniques, from permaculture to hydroponics, to provide affordable, fresh, seasonal produce whilst creating much-needed local jobs. The idea is to use Bentley as a testing ground to help seed other urban farms throughout the area.

And while we’re focusing on walking the walk, I’m going to use my own situation, as a pretty average, low-pay, overweight Doncastrian, to see what good food and regular exercise – there’s plenty of digging to be done – can do for my body, my mind and my wallet.

I’ll be documenting my personal journey in the pages of the Doncopolitan, but if you’d like to join me on my expedition to a brighter, healthier future, contact the magazine or Bentley Urban Farm to see how you can get involved. The more the merrier. Just leave the cream cakes at home.