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The Henry Dimbleby Interview: Breaking The Junk Food Cycle

Henry Dimbleby said the National Food Strategy is "critical to the continuation of decent civilisation"

7 min read

As Henry Dimbleby awaits a formal response to his National Food Strategy report, the government’s food tsar explains why state action is crucial if Britain is to break the damaging junk food cycle and reverse the constant rise in obesity figures.

As a former chef, management consultant, and co-founder of the hugely successful Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby may seem like an obvious choice to lead the government’s independent National Food Strategy. Less obvious is why Dimbleby, with his demanding business career, would choose to devote time to producing a review which would undoubtedly lead to personal criticism and, as with any government-ordered report, face the very real risk of it being left to gather dust on a minister’s desk.

Dimbleby doesn’t hesitate: “When I was asked to do it, I felt it was the opportunity to do something that I really, properly, felt was critical to the continuation of decent civilisation.”

Having launched Leon as a “selfish brand” aimed at increasing access to food which was both enjoyable and healthy, Dimbleby says he was given an insight into the contribution of the food system and how it sits at the centre of “environmental destruction and the destruction of health”.

“I’ve seen it first-hand. It was a chance to change that,” he adds.

Published in two parts, the strategy takes a field-to-fork view of the UK’s relationship with food, addressing issues such as climate change, obesity, and poverty. The ambitious recommendations include a new salt and sugar tax, extending access to school meals, introducing new carbon emission labelling, and even prescribing vegetables through GPs.

While ministers are yet to formally respond to the proposals, which were delivered in June 2020, Dimbleby says he is “pretty relaxed” about the delay, making it clear he believes the evidence he has gathered and the support he has garnered from industry will help overcome the squeamishness that often plagues government attempts to avoid the charge of “nanny state” interventionism.

“There are people who think you should just go into a report and say the most radical things you can imagine that will be politically impossible in the hope that, if you say we need to go to the moon, then they might get halfway there.

“But I saw my job as trying to work out how the system worked, what would fix it, and how politically you get across the line.”

To achieve that, Dimbleby brought companies onboard with his proposals ahead of publication, with some writing to the Prime Minister privately and calling for some aspects, such as mandatory reporting and even new taxes, to be brought in across the industry.

“They all know it’s coming, inside the business,” he adds. “They will say that privately, too. This is the junk food cycle and it’s not just the customers that are stuck in it; it’s the businesses too. And as we said, these people don’t wake up every morning thinking: ‘how can I make people ill and make children fat?’ They wake up thinking: ‘what can I sell to people that they’ll enjoy and make us more money than our competitors?’”

Shifting away from some of the well-worn approaches to tackling obesity, Dimbleby hopes taking a more holistic approach that encompasses the wider food environment will help reverse the constant rise in obesity figures. And that includes government intervention.

“I think almost everyone knows [an individual approach] was wishful thinking. In the centre of government, in the debate, there’s a kind of realisation now that, ‘S**t, this isn’t going to change unless we intervene’.”

He adds: “This was about how we intervene in the most effective and politically-acceptable way. The idea that we can create an app and have communications that persuade people to eat more healthily and that is going to solve this, I don’t think is seriously believed by anyone anymore.”

Coming as the battle over free school meals was raging in the Commons, support for the strategy also received a boost from England football star Marcus Rashford who, having just forced the government into a series of U-turns, publicly threw his support behind Dimbleby’s plans to expand access to high-quality food to school children, measures he believes will tackle both food poverty and the increase in childhood obesity.

“I thought his impact was fantastic. Why it was so powerful is because it linked the data with reality and people who are, or who have been brought up, in that situation,” Dimbleby says. “They very rarely have a voice, and to have someone come from a family where food was not secure, explaining it as eloquently and as apolitically and as straightforwardly as he was, I think made a huge difference.

“In any policy, it is the combination of facts and numbers and dates, and stories and narratives that actually creates change. His intervention was critical in that area.

“It also helped at the time [that] we all knew people, even people who were affluent knew people, who had lost their jobs or were at risk of losing their jobs. Generally understanding [the] narrative that people can find themselves on the outskirts of society, for quite random reasons, unconnected to hard work [or] merit. There was this idea of, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. That was quite strong in 2020.”

Eton and Oxford-educated, Dimbleby’s background is more aligned with that of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg than of those forced to use foodbanks, and while he believes there is “desire” among government to better empathise with those in food poverty, he encourages all ministers to witness first-hand their experiences before deciding on policies that will impact them.

“You have to go and see it. The first session I did at a foodbank, I sat for a day to sign people in. You do a kind of triage for people at a foodbank, and I was signing people in and asking them various questions about how they got there,” he says.

“Certainly, the large majority are people who have had something go wrong, and often they bounce back. Often, they fall into that crack for six months, or a year. There is a big challenge in terms of the people who are falling into that food insecure area.

“I don’t think you can really have great policy responses unless you have that kind of instinctive understanding.”

Inevitably, Dimbleby’s recommendations have faced accusations of being too interventionist, or claims they will increase the average shopping bill. Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, Alicia Kearns, targeted his salt reformulation plans, saying anything which could damage her beloved Stilton would not be countenanced by anyone from the villages around Melton Mowbray, where the cheese is made.

Other MPs may also leap to the defence of local delicacies as the government’s response looms. But Dimbleby remains level-headed, saying even the Prime Minister’s apparent rejection of one of his key recommendations just moments after his report was published – Johnson suggested he was “not attracted” to extra taxes on sugar and salt that would impact “hard-working people” – did little to knock his confidence.

“I don’t personally find it frustrating. Friends ask me, ‘How do you put up with this?’ But that is part of the scene and if you are asked to do one of these things, unless you are very naive, you know that is going to be part of it.

“They ask if I was frustrated when Boris was pounced on with a question on the first day and he responded saying he wasn’t in favour of more taxes on hard-working people. I just thought: ‘well, no, because nobody is’.”

And what of the future of the review? As Mr Johnson’s leadership came under pressure over parties in Downing Street during lockdown, there were reports that he may be prepared to jettison the review in order to appease recalcitrant backbench MPs.

It remains to be seen whether Dimbleby’s hard work and patience will count for anything.

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