The civil service doesn’t like cake. You may feel that the civil service have bigger fish to fry at the moment, what with the whole severing ties with Europe malarkey, but no: cake is a pressing national problem, apparently. In a blog last week, Liza Pawlowska, a member of something called the Wellbeing Workstream of the Mental Wellbeing Network in HM Treasury, takes aim at ‘office cake culture’, and the problems it brings with it.
Pawlowska’s broadside follows remarks made at the start of January by Professor Nigel Hunt from the Faculty of Dental Surgery at their annual dinner, on the perils of workplace cake consumption. ‘While these sweet treats might be well-meaning,’ he told what was surely a sympathetic audience, ‘they are also contributing to the current obesity epidemic and poor oral health’. He went on to suggest a New Year’s resolution to ‘combat cake culture’ in 2017.
This isn’t about munching the odd Kit Kat Chunky to get you through a 4pm slump. According to Hunt, the problem runs much deeper. Across Britain, millions of people are thoughtlessly tempting their colleagues with cakes – both homemade and shop-bought – outside of mealtimes, thereby extending the period for which their teeth are exposed to sugar.
Hunt has a point. But Pawklowska takes these comments out of context to slam office cake in general. She offers various justifications: the risk of diabetes, the risk of cancer, the risk of undermining your colleagues’ willpower. Pawklowska herself is off the stuff entirely: she avoids ‘sweet drinks and processed foods’, and feels much better for it. The none-too-subtle implication is that we should follow her lead.
But frankly, Liza: it’s none of your business. Unless you are a medical professional with intimate knowledge of an individual’s health, it doesn’t matter what you think. When we start policing – formally or informally – the eating habits of others, deciding whether or not they should be ‘tempted’, whether we are ‘weakening their resolve’, we are making judgments about their life we have no right whatsoever to make. And when we do so under the aegis of our employer – in Pawklowska’s case, the Government – it’s even worse. It’s infantilising, interfering, joyless nonsense.
Of course, Pawklowska isn’t alone. Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum believes we shouldn’t use cake as a reward: a smile or hug would be more appropriate. Notwithstanding the questionable wisdom of offering hugs as a way to reward people, Fry rather misses the point of cake.
Because it’s not about sugar. We don’t just make cakes to give people something tasty to eat: that’s what custard creams are for. Cake, especially if it’s homemade, means more. Baking a cake takes time and effort: it’s a gesture of generosity, of celebration, of friendship. It’s the only way many of us break bread with our colleagues on a regular basis. And in my experience of working in an office, it’s one of the few things that brings almost everyone joy.
We are adults. Yes, we should all be more sensitive to the dietary and psychological needs of those around us. But that’s a two-way street. It’s no more OK to say no one should have cake than to make everyone eat it. So if they want to, for the love of god, let them eat cake.