A government strategy to tackle obesity and food poverty is ‘disappointing’ and a ‘missed opportunity to create a healthier and fairer society,’ the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has said.
In the Government’s Food Strategy whitepaper aimed at supporting ‘healthier and homegrown diets for all,’ the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it wants to ‘spark a school food revolution,’ emphasising the importance of ‘individuals building a better understanding of their food choices from a young age’.
It says it plans to introduce ‘a suite of measures to improve school food and build a strong food curriculum,’ including up to £5m to deliver ‘a school cooking revolution,’ with the aim that children leaving secondary school know at least six healthy recipes.
However, RSPH’s director of policy and public affairs, Dr Jyotsna Vohra, said ‘whole-population level solutions’ are needed to address the ‘high levels of obesity’ which ‘burden health and social care services with a range of preventable illnesses, including cancer and heart diseases,’ and ‘leaves many unable to afford a nutritious healthy diet.’
Dr Vohra said: ‘These challenges will not be solved through food education and individual responsibility. They require whole-population level solutions that target the structural causes of ill-health, and the food system is at the heart of this.’
The food strategy is in response to an independent review of the UK food system commissioned by the Government in 2018 and carried out by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and a non-executive director of Defra.
He was asked to provide recommendations so the food system ‘delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where people live or how much they earn,’ and ‘restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country.’
The review highlighted ‘the growing problem of obesity in the UK,’ with latest data showing ‘around 64% of adults and 40% of children in England are over overweight or living with obesity, which has been compounded by the pandemic.’
Defra said excess weight and poor diet are ‘drivers of other health conditions’ that cost the NHS £6.1bn every year.
‘Obesity and dietary-related ill-health is more pronounced in the most deprived groups,’ it said, and the ‘link between deprivation and dietary outcomes is not only about the cost of healthier food,’ but also about ‘having the equipment, cooking skills, and time to prepare and cook healthier food than more convenient alternatives, which can be high in fat, salt and sugar.’
It said it is seeking to ‘reduce these barriers,’ and has promised to ‘invest in enabling primary care to undertake a pilot programme to improve diets through the Community Eatwell programme,’ which will ‘build on the growth of social prescribing within primary care networks.’
Acknowledging concerns about ‘significant increases in food prices,’ Defra said the food strategy ‘focuses on longer-term measures to support a resilient, healthier and more sustainable food system that is affordable to all’.
It said: ‘It is complementary to wider government work on cost of living, setting out measures which will ease supply chain bottlenecks and improve efficiency, therefore reducing pressures on the cost of food.’
But Dr Vohra said the food strategy is just ‘tweaks to the status quo.’ She said: ‘A more equitable food system must be one of the core elements of the levelling-up agenda. With children from the most deprived areas now twice as likely to be obese as those from the least deprived, and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, this is a time for bold actions such as new salt and sugar reformulation levies.
‘This food strategy is disappointing, and in its current form is a missed opportunity to create a healthier and fairer society.’
This comes after soaring levels of obesity among primary school children has sparked alarm among healthcare bodies late last year, who said more needs to be done to tackle childhood obesity and improve child health.