A healthy diet is simply unaffordable for many struggling families in Britain
Since the start of the pandemic, the use of food banks has shot up by a reported 81 per cent, writes Lord Krebs. | PA Images
The way in which food is produced, manufactured, sold, marketed, and consumed in Britain makes it hard for everyone to eat a healthy diet, and makes it especially hard for the poorest members of society.
Britain is top, or close to it, in the European league tables for levels of adult and childhood obesity, consumption of less healthy processed food, and the proportion of people living on the edge of affording enough to eat (food insecurity).
Britain is also a very unequal society, with one in five people living poverty. Obesity rates are twice as high among the poorest compared with the richest, and there is a gap of 20 years in healthy life expectancy between wealthy and deprived.
These shocking facts were presented to my Committee, which has published its report, Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food, today (6 July).
Over ten months we heard oral evidence from 44 witness and received more than 100 pieces of written evidence.
All of this led us to conclude that the way in which food is produced, manufactured, sold, marketed, and consumed in Britain makes it hard for everyone to eat a healthy diet, and makes it especially hard for the poorest members of society.
Struggling families will often have no choice but to prioritise filling stomachs with fast food over seeking out and preparing healthy meals
Less healthy food, high in salt, sugar and saturated fats, and often dense in calories, tends to be heavily promoted by discounts or placement in supermarkets, and the plethora of fast food outlets encourages people to eat too much of the wrong things.
Without enough time, money and the know-how to navigate against this flow and eat healthily, the most financially hard-pressed people are at the greatest risk.
We were told that struggling families will often have no choice but to prioritise filling stomachs with fast food over seeking out and preparing healthy meals. To follow the Government’s own healthy eating guidelines would cost the poorest households about three quarters of their income after housing: a healthy diet is simply unaffordable.
COVID-19 has made an already dreadful situation worse.
Before the pandemic too many people did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families properly, and since the start of the pandemic, the use of food banks has shot up by a reported 81 per cent. As redundancies increase in the coming months, the crisis of food insecurity and bad diet will surely escalate.
Radical change is needed to create a “food system” fit for the future: healthy food for a healthy population and a healthy environment.
Our findings should not come as a surprise to anybody. The Government has been sitting on the results of consultations about tackling childhood obesity for up to two years. The Public Health Minister told us that action was being held up by the COVID-19 crisis but when asked what she would have done had it not been for coronavirus, she told us that she would have launched another consultation!
The Government should be measuring the scale of the problem and factoring the cost of healthy eating into the calculation of benefit payments. It needs to take on the forces of industry by curbing advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods and stepping up the pressure to reformulate processed foods to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat. Free school meals and healthy start vouchers must be properly funded.
Opportunities for change are at hand.
The Agriculture Bill can incentivise farmers to not only preserve the natural environment but also to contribute to healthier eating. The National Food Strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rethink our whole food system.
The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.
Lord Krebs is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords and Chair of the food, poverty, health and environment committee.