Mum and daughter at self-checkout in a supermarket

Childhood obesity

Making healthy options easier: how supermarkets can support children’s nutrition

6 May 2021
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4 min read

How we are working to shape healthier and more equitable food environments.

Louise Foreman
Louise Foreman
Portfolio Manager (community engagement)
Matthias Lomas
Matthias Lomas
Engagement Manager - Investment, Guy's & St Thomas' Foundation

In the UK, one of the key environments which shapes what families eat is the supermarket, with almost 90% of UK retail grocery sales happening there. The products sold by large food retailers, and how these products are priced and promoted, have a huge impact on our diets. We’re trying to make the best use of all assets available to us as a charitable foundation, where we are both a grantmaker and institutional investor, in order to realise this opportunity.

How supermarkets can shape our diets

When we enter a supermarket, we’re influenced by lots of simple cues in the environment. The promotions that are placed at the end of the aisles, the impulse purchases at the checkouts, and the special offers that catch our eye, all end up shaping what’s in our bags.

Findings from the behavioural sciences have consistently shown that what people eat is strongly influenced by these kinds of cues, and that the effect is particularly strong when we are in stressful situations – the sorts of situations often caused by living under financial strain. These findings have also been repeated in our research conversations with families living in Lambeth and Southwark. When you’re trying to juggle many different priorities, cost and convenience are key.

Knowing all of this, it’s clear that supermarkets have a crucial role to play in helping to make healthy options easier. By working to increase sales of nutritious food and to reduce the flood of high fat, sugar and salt products, there’s a clear opportunity to make changes that are good for both businesses and public health.

Working in partnership to make change happen

Our work on trying to break the link between low income and poor nutrition has shown us the importance of tackling an issue from multiple angles. One of the ways that this gets put into practice is through our dual role across philanthropy and investment.

An example is our partnership with the Collaboration for Healthier Lives UK, where we’re funding the evaluation of an industry-led programme exploring what supermarkets and manufacturers can do to improve the health of their consumers. Led by Tesco and Danone as Co-Chairs, the first phase of trials took place in stores in Lambeth and Southwark and found that by making changes, companies were successfully able to increase sales of healthier foods, and reduce sales of unhealthy foods, with no negative impact on business.

As part of a foundation with a permanent endowment, we are also working towards an investment portfolio that has a positive health impact as well as achieving financial returns. We recently added an investment engagement function to influence the corporate behaviours of our investments to help support our mission. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, such as the healthiness of foods sales, are a performance issue which affects long-term value. Companies that increase their sale of healthier foods are likely to be more competitive in the future due to increasing regulation on unhealthy foods and rising consumer demand for healthy products.

By making changes, companies were successfully able to increase sales of healthier foods, and reduce sales of unhealthy foods, with no negative impact on business.

Trial of stores in Lambeth and Southwark

As part of our commitment, we have added our voice to the coalition of shareholders led by ShareAction, a charity building the movement for responsible investment over the last decade. Recent dialogue between shareholders and Tesco has seen the company adopt a series of landmark health commitments, including a market-leading target to increase their proportion of UK and ROI sales from healthier food and drink products from 58% to 65% by 2025. Given that as a country approximately £1 in every £5 spent on food is at Tesco, changes like this will have a significant impact on the population’s diet.

What we have learnt

Throughout these different roles, some lessons have emerged:

  • The power of networks. Whether for industry leaders such as Tesco working to shape best practice through the Collaboration for Healthier Lives, or charities like ShareAction harnessing the power of responsible investment, building strong networks with a shared goal is important.
  • Health is on the corporate agenda. Many food retailers have developed comprehensive health and sustainability plans and are committed to bringing these to life. Increasingly, investors too view consumer health as a material ESG issue. Transparent reporting on progress can help to accelerate positive change more widely across industry and policy.
  • The need to work within the current policy environment, whilst also striving to reshape this for the future. Leaders within industry can initiate a wide range of changes to make a positive difference to population health. However, national policy changes are also required in order for these changes to be sustainable and impactful at scale.
  • Engagement and partnership work is a continually evolving process. Our shared work to tackle food inequalities and ensure that all children have access to nutritious diets requires bold ambition and a commitment to action. We’re glad to be working with industry partners who share these aims, and who are willing to keep on stretching their work and leading the field.

What’s next

Over the next five years, we’ll continue our work to shape healthier and more equitable food environments, and we look forward to collaborating with a wide range of partners to achieve this.

Building on Tesco’s commitments, ShareAction is currently engaging with other supermarkets and manufacturers through the Healthy Markets programme, asking companies to play their part in enabling a healthy population.

This year, retailers and manufacturers participating in the Collaboration for Healthier Lives will also be scaling their interventions nationally, with a focus on food categories that will make the biggest difference for people shopping on a low budget. We’re excited about the opportunity to track data from this work and build evidence about the important roles that the food industry, and related policy, must play in tackling dietary inequalities.

If you’d like to get in touch about our work to create healthier food retail environments, please contact Louise Foreman.

To learn more about our Foundation’s progress as a responsible investor, contact Matthias Lomas.