In those pre-pandemic days at the start of January The Grocer reported that, with an overweight Prime Minster in charge, Public Health England had pulled their 11-year-old Change-For-Life campaign. Boris Johnson had stood on a platform to halt the “continuing creep of the nanny state” into our diets and to review the “sin taxes” on sugar, salt and fat. Seven months later, he has now introduced a series of regulations the Food and Drink Federation call a “punishing blow”.
Eat Club welcomes the Government’s shift to addressing the UK obesity crisis but, alongside fellow grassroots campaigners and frontline practitioners, we question whether the policies are broad enough to succeed.
Working with young Londoners from disadvantaged backgrounds for the past six years, Eat Club knows that there is indeed a crisis out there. Participants in our courses come to us eating poorly. Our surveys and questionnaires show fewer than 20% eat the recommended “5 a day” and more than half have fizzy or energy drinks with meals.
In addition, family habits often don’t support healthy eating and one-third eat with family only once a week or even less. Fewer than 20% of our participants learn to cook by helping parents prepare daily meals, and the lack of skills entrenches this behaviour. When the average engagement with food media is five hours per week, many spend an hour more from Monday to Sunday Snapchatting their lunch than making it!
Covid-19 is a crisis rooted in the food system. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pointed out, it’s a pandemic that started in a market, created empty shelves, prompted an explosion in home baking and has now a re-awakened us to the obesity crisis. Food is at the heart of the pandemic precisely because it’s so crucial to everything we do.
Eat Club welcomes the ban on junk food advertising before 9pm, the ending of BOGOF (buy one get one free) promotions and better calorie labelling. But these consumer-focused policies cannot exist in isolation from food’s broader relation to our lives – which encompasses economic disadvantage, food education and the genuine food alternatives available to us.
Through our day to day work, Eat Club knows that by empowering people – especially young people – to develop a positive relationship with food (to gain the food literacy and cooking confidence to source and prepare food from scratch, while making sharing healthy food culturally relevant) is the best way of addressing the underlying barriers that consumerist policies miss and the best way of supporting sustainable dietary change.
Again, we support all efforts to address our national obesity crisis but stress that any efforts to do this must deal with the broader conditions of food. Only by working with all stakeholders will we see genuine change.
While Covid-19 has shown the far-reaching influence of food – from empty shelves and growing numbers of food banks – it is the stark statistic that being obese can double the risk of dying from the virus which seems to have caught the Prime Minister’s attention and led to a change of tack from Government.
However, the shift towards greater ‘nannying’ as the PM likes to call it, including a ban on junk food adverts before 9pm, needs to be more than a handful of headline-grabbing policies and glossy PR campaigns if it is to bring about lasting change in our food system and relationship with food.