Parent supports a toddler, while they both walk along a supermarket aisle.

Children's health and food

Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health

16 April 2024
5 min read

Regulation is needed to make real change.

This article was first published in The New Statesman on 5th April 2024.


All children should have the opportunity to be healthy, no matter where they live. Access to enough nutritious food is a fundamental part of this. The places where children live, learn and spend their time are hugely important factors in how easy it is for them and their families to access affordable, healthy food.

Through our Children’s Health and Food programme at Impact on Urban Health, we know that making changes in these places – high streets, schools and online spaces – can have a big impact on children’s health.

Early this year, Labour set out its vision on child health, proposing to create the “healthiest generation of children ever” with an action plan of initiatives around junk food advertising, mental health and free primary school breakfast clubs.

A clear focus on children’s health has long been needed and policymakers finally recognising its importance is much welcomed. Front and centre must be the way in which our food is produced, marketed and sold.

Healthy options right now are simply out of reach for many, especially families living in areas most affected by poverty. Per calorie, healthy food is three times as expensive as unhealthy food.

Food insecurity for children is at a record high, with over a quarter of households with babies and pre-school children having to compromise on the quality, variety and quantity of their food or going without food altogether.

Access to healthy food in the UK is incredibly unequal. Children’s chances of accessing healthy food depend strongly on where they grow up.

Children living in the most deprived areas are flooded with unhealthy food options, restricting their affordable choices. There tends to be more fast-food outlets (and access to these online) in areas of greater deprivation, making it harder for local residents to access healthy food.

People from more deprived areas are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy food advertising, which drives additional consumption of unhealthy food and drink. Four out of five outdoor billboards in England and Wales are in poorer areas. Many of these are advertising junk food.

This is an inequity which must be addressed.

We know from our work that there is support from the public and business to go further – what is needed is a radical approach that seeks to tip incentives away from foods high in fat, salt and sugar towards affordable healthier options, stemming the tide of unhealthy food for families across the country. A representative survey suggests that 73 per cent of the public support “requiring food manufacturers to reduce sugar and salt from everyday foods”.

However, this desire for progress is undermined by a proliferation of unhealthy products produced by the same companies that are calling on the government to launch an educational campaign to support healthy lifestyles in the UK.

While it’s right to encourage the government to deliver a joined-up approach collaborating with organisations across the food sector, public health messaging will do little to remedy the fundamental lack of healthy, affordable options currently available to children and families.

A new parliamentary term brings an opportunity to fundamentally reset our relationship with the food that surrounds our children – on high streets, in online spaces and in their schools.

The food industry is the driving force behind access to affordable, healthy food – and the flood of unhealthy food on our streets. But government has a crucial role to play in creating a level playing field for industry to reform how it produces, markets and sells our food.

Asking industry to voluntarily enact change doesn’t work. But we’ve seen how regulation can. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) – which marks its sixth anniversary this month – incentivised companies to make their products healthier, reducing sugar content in soft drinks and demonstrating health benefits to the children and families buying their products. Profits have not suffered, and the prices of reformulated products did not rise.

Progressive regulation of the food industry is a key tool to support families living on lower incomes.

Research around the SDIL shows that the lowest-income group reduced consumption of sugar by the greatest amount – over a third – and that the most deprived fifth of these households are likely to experience the largest positive health impacts from the SDIL.

Junk food advertising bans have been proven to reduce levels of food-related ill health and we welcome Labour’s commitment to the 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on TV.

If legislation was extended to online and out-of-home advertising, together with this proposal, the potential to take the spotlight off unhealthy food and make healthier options centre stage in children’s minds would be significant.

An urgent focus on children’s health is welcome. But if Labour wants to deliver on ambitions to create the healthiest generation of children ever, it must embrace transformational policy change and go further, faster.

Case study: Recipe for Change

Recipe for Change is a coalition of 42 health organisations, Royal Medical Colleges and food campaigners led by Sustain, Obesity Health Alliance and Food Foundation, with support from British Heart Foundation, Action on Salt and Sugar, and Impact on Urban Health. The campaign was launched in September 2023, calling for a new industry levy to help make our food healthier, while raising revenue that can be invested back into children’s health.

Our high streets, school canteens and supermarket shelves are flooded with food overloaded with sugar and salt. Companies need to improve what goes into the food they sell.

The Recipe for Change coalition is trying to achieve this change by:

  • Calling on the government to build on the success of SDIL by introducing a new levy on unhealthy food.
  • Calling on businesses to change the recipes of the food and drink they sell to make them healthier.
  • Investing the revenue raised from the levy in children’s health and access to good food.