Children's health and food

Our part to play in the new National Food Strategy

30 July 2020
3 min read

The Government has published two strategies around obesity and food. With this opportunity to make a real impact on levels of childhood obesity, Programme Director Sarah Hickey argues that the Government can go even further.

Sarah Hickey
Sarah Hickey
Interim Executive Director

We all deserve access to the things we need to be healthy – including nutritious food. 

This week the government published both its new obesity strategy and Part One of the National Food Strategy. The obesity strategy commits to some really important building blocks to improving our health. In turn, the Food Strategy emphasises that these are vital components of a much bigger set of actions required to improve food systems. 

We are pleased to see the obesity strategy recognising that maintaining a healthy diet is difficult. We are faced with endless prompts to eat in our everyday lives. 

We would emphasise this point even further. Food environments are the biggest factor influencing obesity levels across the UK population and subsequently one of the biggest factors influencing our resilience in the face of unexpected health challenges like COVID-19.


Childhood obesity is an issue of inequality

The obesity strategy highlights that navigating our unhealthy food spaces is especially difficult when busy or stressed. Facing poverty and structural inequity brings huge stressors and demands on time and headspace. 

That’s before we consider the significant financial barriers to accessing nutritious food. And because food budgets can be flexed, diet is often the first thing to suffer. Lower-income areas – especially in urban spaces – are flooded with unhealthy options with far fewer healthy alternatives. As a result, where children grow up is a big predictor of their chances of becoming overweight or obese. 

Childhood obesity and income

The Government’s commitment to regulation around High Fat Sugar Salt (HFSS) product advertising is a world-leading and important step to moving unhealthy food options out of the spotlight. 

And limiting in-store promotions of unhealthy products will also help stem the tide of junk food coming at families. These are necessary steps to improving our food environments. We look forward to these commitments coming into force. 

Part One of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy emphasises that there is a lot we can do as a society to build on these landmark policy measures. That includes the government going further still and looking at how it can use all the fiscal and regulatory levers at its disposal to create a food system where healthy diets are the easiest option. 

The Food Strategy recommends that in the immediate term policymakers build on existing government mechanisms by:

  • Extending Free School Meal eligibility
  • Increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers
  • And introducing a food standards mechanism in trade agreement considerations.

They would be impactful, practical and urgently needed next steps for policy.


Small co-ordinated steps to tackle obesity

At the launch of the Food Strategy, Henry highlighted that COVID-19 has created a collective sense of purpose. Both the government and industry united to improve the food system for our children. 

We enthusiastically agree that the issue of obesity is too big and too complex for one sector to tackle alone. Step change impact means:

  • Industry using its resources and capacity for innovation to create healthier food retail spaces and products
  • Investors seeing health as a long-term asset and demanding this from the companies in which they hold shares
  • Shifting the school food system – through actions by policymakers, caterers and school leaders – so that universally accessible nutritious food is the main consideration

Our place-based work on childhood obesity is about getting started and keeping going. From our perspective, we can see growing and vocal societal demand for change – from commercial players as well as citizens. 

Together with the government’s new announcements, this creates a momentum that has the potential to radically improve children’s health. To achieve this potential, we need to take continued, collective, practical action to achieve step-change impact around food, health and inequality.