Dire Health Statistics Prompt Archiepiscopal Austerity
1. "Death rates in Russia due to heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular diseases are extremely high. In great measure this is due to poor nutrition. We are trying to use the current crisis to change the nation's eating habits", says Alexander Baturin, Deputy Head of Moscow's Institute of Nutrition, which is part of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Last week the Institute, together with Russia's federal consumer protection agency, published a comprehensive meal planner advising Russians what to eat. (Other reforms are overdue too, e.g. in smoking, alcoholism, and lack of exercise - all themes familiar to followers of Britain's reactions, expressed by its Food Standards Agency, on the nations woes of overeating and ill health).
2. The planner recommends a healthy breakfast of oatmeal porridge and fried eggs, washed down with a budget chicory coffee. Lunch includes borscht, a famous beetroot soup popular in Russia and the Ukraine, with a salad. Dinner is fried fish, (chocolate, crisps, pizza, and fizzy drinks are all out - but the frying pan remains).
3. So Russia is not the only country to find the beginning of Lent as an opportune time to proselytize and practise the need for dietary reform. The debate begins at the start of Lent in the Orthodox Church. Father Alexei, a priest in Polenovo, a village near Moscow, explains, "The first 2 apostles, Andrew and Peter, were both fishermen, The Church therefore has a positive attitude towards eating sea and river inhabitants", they were quoted in the "best selling" Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
4. Russia's economy is "in big trouble, unemployment is rising and the rouble is sinking fast" (Guardian 03/03/09), so porridge may be the secret weapon to tackle the country's worsening economic crisis. After years in which Russians have indulged themselves in too many fatty sausages and mountains of pancakes, the country's health agency has produced a crisis diet to improve their recidivist eating habits. Officials have published a low-calorie meal schedule, aimed at those on marginal incomes as well as the rich, "grown tubby during the boom years" Alexander Baturin extols the virtues of fish: "Fresh fish is ideal, fish is marvellous, people should eat fish 2 or 3 times a week. Unfortunately, Russians prefer sausages to fish", he says.
5. Russian adults have put on an extra 2kg bodyweight over the last decade. Children have piled on almost 1kg. The consumer protection ministry has published the austerity diet on its website, together with helpful photos. The campaign comes at a time of soaring food prices in Russia. Previous attempts foiled during Soviet times to persuade a reluctant population to improve its diet. They culminated in the patriotic slogan "Eat fish on Thursdays". Alexander Baturin said that he was optimistic that people would heed his previously ignored advice.
6. We know the feeling. However, we derive a little comfort from the common cause with Lent as a time of desired reform and that VEGA is proved fit for purpose as a campaigning NGO when others have failed.