More junk food won’t solve anything
The government’s U-turn on banning multibuy deals and advertising junk food to kids is a disaster.
They had the chance to be ‘world beating’ when it came to children’s health – instead, ministers are disregarding the evidence and shrinking away from their commitment to restrict multibuy offers and pre-Watershed junk food advertising. They are abandoning our health in face of the cost-of-living crisis, deepening the inequalities we already face in our society.
Children are at the sharp end of the broken food system
The latest survey from the Food Foundation highlights the growing crisis in the UK. Approximately 2.6 million children have experienced food insecurity in the past month. At the same time, NHS data finds that obesity prevalence in 11-year-olds has increased from 20% up to 25% in the last 2 years.
These stats are shocking but shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. The current crises have certainly exacerbated things - Brexit, the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, extreme climatic events and subsequent rises in energy and food prices have all meant that food accessibility has diminished. Soaring household bills mean that money is tight, and the struggles people are dealing with should not be underestimated.
But the issues with food accessibility have long existed. We’ve seen for decades that unhealthy, low-nutrition food is often cheaper than healthy nutritious staples. Ultra-processed foods that are bad for people and the planet make up half of our shopping baskets, and the bulk of buy one get on free offers in supermarkets. The offers are targeted at young people, through their phones, laptops and tablets at times when they are most likely to see the ads. Campaigners like Jack Monroe regularly and painstakingly outline just how difficult feeding a family three meals a day is at the moment, let alone feeding children healthy, nutritious and diverse diets, which are quick and easy to prepare!
Junk food doesn’t save money
It is no wonder how we have arrived at the situation we are now in. And advertising junk food and allowing multibuys is not the answer to fixing people’s health or helping those in financial need. I want to be clear here - this isn’t a campaign against treats. Seeing my favourite chocolate bar or packet of crisps on offer always results in me doing a little skip. The issue arises when the ultra-processed foods, which make up the bulk of multibuy offers, become consistently cheaper and displaces healthier, more nutrient-dense staples.
Public Health England’s analysis of the role of price promotions on the household purchases found that multibuy offers make people buy more food overall and don’t save money. These ultra-processed empty calories provide poor nutritional benefits but are prevalent in our diets. Research has also shown that children and families in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to be targets of junk food adverts. And we know that junk food ads work.
After seven years of campaigning by ourselves and numerous other food and children’s health campaigners, the government had committed to resolving some of the issues via an Obesity Strategy. But now they have U-turned on those commitments. If the government isn’t going to step up, can retailers?
Tesco has pledged to go ahead with the restrictions on HFSS (foods high in fat, salt and sugar) multibuy promotions. Only time will tell if they can persist with going it alone. Retailers have a significant influence on our buying habits. Product placement, special offers and store layout all determine what ends up in our baskets. It’s great Tesco is standing out on this, and the other brands need to follow.
The whole food system is broken
Even though retailers have huge power, we need the whole food chain to take action.
For years, food and farming organisations have been feeding into developing a National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby. This report, requested and paid for by the government, set out to evaluate the state of our current food system and make recommendations to improve it.
One of the main recommendations was to create a Food Bill which would allow many of the recommendations to be fulfilled via legislation and policy change. A Food Bill would ensure the long-term commitment we need and make sure the food system is fit for purpose and not rigged against us. Disappointingly, the latest from the Queen’s Speech and George Eustice is that a Food Bill is no longer on the cards.
This current U-turn shows how desperately we need it so that short-term disruptions like the cost-of-living crisis don’t result in well thought through plans, like the Obesity Strategy, being abandoned. We are continuing to put pressure on the government to not miss this opportunity to care for public health in the longer term.
The public sector should champion healthy meals
Good food should be affordable and accessible to all. A good start is in the public sector. School meals should not be viewed as the answer to a crisis but as a fundamental part of the education and food systems. Children can’t learn on an empty stomach.
We were thrilled to see our Food for Life programme recognised in the National Food Strategy for its role in creating a food system that works for both nature and our health. Over 2 million meals are served each day to Food for Life standards, including in roughly 50% of English primary schools, over 50 NHS hospitals and over 50 universities. Independent evaluation of the scheme has shown that for every £1 spent on local seasonal produce, £3 is generated in social, economic and environmental value in the local community.
This is a great example of how public sector food supports local jobs, careers and can boost local economies. But cooks, caterers and staff need adequate support and resource. This includes implementing an appropriate funding mechanism that covers wages, food and capital costs to help create a good working environment. Developing this stable market would incentivise local farmers and growers to supply into it, and they should be supported to do so.
Proper and considered investment in public sector food will ensure another part of our food system is delivering on health and sustainability and build resilience for the future.
Whatever the government’s response to the National Food Strategy, we hope and continue to campaign for it to be transformative, supporting the changes needed across the whole food system.
There is no silver bullet solution or quick fix, but one thing is certain – that the government needs to reverse the U-turn and come up with some real solutions to feed people real food.