It’s another wet bank holiday Monday and I find myself sitting in the café of a leisure centre whilst my son and his friend swim. Not the most pleasant of environments, the café is both noisy and humid but it is not that which attracts my attention. For a leisure facility which aims to promote a healthy lifestyle in the form of exercise for the family their policy doesn’t appear to extend to healthy eating. The menu is typical of so many family leisure attractions, high in fat, sugar and salt. The adult menu comprises five varieties of burger, sausages, scampi and chicken nuggets, all of low quality. The children’s menu is exactly the same but with the addition of fish fingers to replace the scampi. And of course there are the inevitable chips and cheesy chips. The cakes on offer consist of iced ring donuts, jam donuts, chocolate fudge cake and a better looking homemade bread pudding. The packets snacks do include some ‘healthier’ cereal bars but these are overshadowed on the display by chocolate bars, crisps and biscuits.
To be fair there are healthier options in the form of filled jacket potatoes, boxed sandwiches, plated salads and two specials of the day- chilli con carne and macaroni cheese which look appetising on the display counter but uptake of these healthier options is minimal. Everyone who comes into the café has the ‘with chips’ options.
The question I find myself asking, and struggling to find the answer to, is whether a council run leisure centre which is aiming to promote a healthy exercise regime should take a more holistic approach and proactively encourage a healthier diet amongst its patrons too. On the one hand this is people’s leisure time so why shouldn’t they eat what they want. Furthermore the café is in the business of profit and therefore must offer what customers want to stay in business. On the other hand the unhealthy food offer contradicts the positive messaging the centre is giving about exercise and the importance of staying healthy.
So what would happen if they removed the unhealthy options from the menu? Undoubtedly there would be public uproar, scores of complaints, mums and dads would head to McDonalds and sales would plummet. Eventually the caterers would give in to public pressure and reinstate the fried food.
But what if they held out? What if the council were prepared to forsake short term profit for long term gain in a healthier community? There would still be those that would go elsewhere but what proportion of customers would opt for the alternative healthier options if the unhealthy options were removed?
We have been involved in a few projects of a similar nature where it has been necessary to challenge a long standing menu or tradition or design or price structure. To begin with the old customers stay away in protest or complain bitterly but we usually see the old faces return to join an increasingly satisfied new clientele.
One which stands out in particular was the café at Burnham Beeches http://www.boyd-thorpe-associates.co.uk/Page.php?ID=BurnhamBeeches. When the old wooden kiosks were condemned and pulled down a handful of regular users petitioned, lobbied, protested and refused to use the new café when it was built. They sat just outside of the fenced area of the café with flasks of coffee brought from home until one day the new café manager went up to them and told them that it was their facility and they should just try it! The next day a few broke ranks and bought their coffee in the café, then a few more the next day. Now those very same protesters are the most loyal customers of the café using it every day come rain or shine after their dog walking sessions. But for the park authority it took perseverance and courage in their convictions.
Sometime we just have to believe in what we are doing and get on and do it.
But it still doesn’t answer the question whether the state should be dictating to the nation what we eat by restricting the food offered to us in state operated cafes. We would love to hear from any leisure centres that have taken on the traditional leisure centre unhealthy menu and won!
What is your view?