The National Food Strategy, Part 1

Today the first part of the National Food Strategy was published.  Bags of Taste has been on the Economic and Population Health Steering Committee which has inputted into this strategy.  Here are our comments on this first output, focussed, as ever, on those in poverty.
National food strategy booklets

Bags of Taste has advised on the National Food Strategy for 2020

Our involvement with the National Food Strategy has been focussed very much on our area of expertise, namely the diets of those in poverty, and its effects on their health.  Having worked with 4,500 participants in food poverty, and also lecturing medical students on health inequalities that largely arise from poor diets, we are well qualified to speak in this area.

Part One of the National Food Strategy has been slightly repurposed to deal with the fall out from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But this does not take the focus off the area of health inequalities; indeed it emphasises it. As we know by now, those in poverty have been more severely affected.  They are also the least able to sustain a financial shock to their incomes, already had the worst mental health, are the most likely to be overweight or obese, and the most likely to have some of the high risk conditions like diabetes.  BAME populations are also significantly more likely to have low incomes.  Looking at all these risk factors together, things are bleak for those in poverty.

The conference call that Henry Dimbleby hosted today had a really telling poll of the thousand or so participants.  It looked like this:

Graphic showing how many people feel it is their responsibility to eat a healthy diet

Poll showing the results of people’s responsibility in choosing healthy diets

This reflects what we have often found that people think – that people eat badly because of some kind of lack of willpower.  Has the UK undergone a kind of lack of willpower epidemic since the 50s, causing us all to get so much fatter?  I think not.  I’m delighted to see that Henry is proposing a much more interventionist strategy, one that the government also appears to be pursuing.

The research work that we’ve done shows clearly that there are much wider issues to be tackled, many of which can only really be tackled at scale by government interventions, that will support people to improve their diets.  Yes, we do tackle all these issues on our course, but some of them we can only tackle indirectly. For example, structural issues such as takeaway density.  Stands to reason if you’re hungry, enjoy fried chicken and chips, and have to walk past 10 fried chicken shops to get home, the chance you get tempted on the way home to your dinner is going to be much higher than if they weren’t there.  I can make sure there’s something delicious waiting for you at home, but I can’t remove the damn takeaways.

Others are around the costs of food – both healthy food and unhealthy food.  I can’t subsidise vegetables on an ongoing basis, nor tax junk food.  These are things that CAN be done at government level, and as we’ve seen with our students, the economics of food are a strong behavioural driver.

Henry correctly identifies that food poverty is directly related to poverty, as we have often illustrated with the following graphic.

The food poverty cycle

Graphic showing the relationship between poverty and food poverty

So many of the reasons that people in poverty eat poor diets is due to their finances.  In particular the fact that they have to pay more for things in the small amounts that they can afford, or from the shops they find nearby. This is known as the Poverty Premium, and you can learn more about it here. This is made even more crucial at this time when so many of the nation’s lowest earners, with barely any savings, are about to be tipped into poverty proper as the furlough schemes end and unemployment quadruples, as forecast by the ONS and Bank of England.

The proposals to support those in poverty through free school meals, Healthy Start vouchers and Food for the Vulnerable is needed, but we hope to see some further proposals to support access to healthy food in Part 2 of the strategy.

One of the statistics that jumped out at me is that during lockdown, people in poverty ate a whole portion less, on average, of fruit and veg per day.  Given that they were eating a third less than the rest of the population to begin with, this is pretty significant.  We need to ensure that the poorest in society have the dignity to buy decent food at a price they can afford.  Also, the food that they are eating should not be making them sick.  The government should support them in any way possible to do this, in the face of what can seem like insurmountable barriers.

Read the full National Food Strategy document here

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