Nobody can deny that the cost-of-living crisis is placing a significant strain on households to pay for essentials such as energy/heating, travel to work/school and food. Just last week, the soaring price of milk, cheese and eggs has pushed food inflation to its highest level for 14 years.
The situation is now starting to affect the amount of money households can spend on food, in particular more expensive items such as fruit and vegetables. As such, we fully support the Government in exploring options, at speed, to help minimise the burden this is placing on households.
It appears the Treasury has earmarked current and planned obesity policy as one area to review in light of the crisis, and there is a very real possibility that policies, which are designed to protect public health including the 2018 Soft Drinks Industry Levy, could be scrapped. Other potential casualties include a raft of measures proposed in the previous Prime Minister’s national obesity strategy, including removing less healthy food and drink from the checkout and restricting less healthy food and drink from being advertised on TV and online.
Given the mounting crisis facing the UK , some campaigners are calling for the government to help, giving people enough to eat, rather than spending time on implementing policies to reduce obesity.
In this blog, we will attempt to explore the decision to U-turn on obesity policy from a food insecurity perspective.
It cannot be quantity vs quality, it has to be both
Consideration must not only be given to the quantity of food available but also the quality (i.e., healthiness) of food. It is important people are able to access the right quality, variety, as well as quantity of food. If we do not address all of these aspects, it is likely to only further widen the health disparities we already see in this country.
The reality is at present, those who have limited budget to spend on food and drink have to make a difficult decision between food quantity and quality. Often, quantity will take precedent to avoid anyone in the household going hungry, but this can also mean meals are high calorie but nutrient poor. Poor quality diet is a key contributor to diet-related ill health, including overweight and obesity. It comes as no surprise that rates of children with obesity are increasing significantly faster in communities with high deprivation levels compared to those with low deprivation levels.
Furthermore, a study from 2020 in the North West found that those who were more food insecure tended to have a higher Body Mass Index.
Reducing health disparities was a key manifesto item for the Conservative Party as part of their Levelling Up agenda and scrapping obesity policies that will help to bridge the inequality gap is unwise.
Sugar tax revenue is providing valuable funding to feed children at breakfast and during holidays
It seems completely counter intuitive to be reconsidering the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL or better known as the sugar tax) in light of the cost-of-living crisis.
The levy has generated over £1bn in revenue since its inception in 2018, which has been reinvested into supporting children and families who are likely to feel the effects of the cost-of-living crisis greatest.
For example, the revenue has helped to fund the National School Breakfast Programme, whereby schools which have 40% or more pupils in bands A-F of the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, can access funding to set up a healthy school breakfast programme. This will provide some relief for family’s food bills, which are reaching record highs, and ensure the children who need it most have access to a healthy and nutritious breakfast and are ready to learn ahead of the school day .
Furthermore, revenue from the SDIL has also supported the Holiday Activities and Food Programme (HAF). HAF is designed to provide support to children in receipt of free school meals through holiday periods, which is means-tested, meaning households on low incomes or in receipt of certain entitlements can benefit from a free nutritious lunch for all children between 4-16 years old.
It is also worth highlighting that the legislation which has been in place for four years now, has removed 48 million kilos of sugar from the nation’s diet, and is supported by the public.
Unless the Government have plans on how to fill this funding gap, scrapping the SDIL could go as far as increasing the burden of the cost-of-living crisis on low-income households.
Scrapping obesity policy now will not shield households from the cost-of-living crisis – the solutions lie elsewhere
We have yet to see any evidence that suggests scrapping obesity policies will mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on households. How will scrapping legislation that will ensure only healthier items are placed at prominent locations in store mitigate the impact? How will scrapping legislation that will mean only healthier food and drink can be advertised on TV and online via social media play any role in softening the blow?
The solutions to the cost-of-living crisis lie elsewhere. There are many other areas the government could explore, that would actually have a meaningful impact.
We urge the government to focus on solutions that put more money in people’s pockets, enabling households to afford both the quality and quantity of food they need to eat well. These could include ensuring benefits are uprated in real time to keep up with the true cost of inflation (including uprating financial support for asylum seekers) and reinstating the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, which before it was taken away was shown to protect some children from poverty . We would encourage the government to work with local authorities to implement measurable plans to improve the uptake of benefits such as Pension Credit and The Healthy Start Scheme and consider immediately extending Free School Meals to the 800,000 children living in poverty who are currently not eligible.
Other immediate measures such as pausing all debt deductions taken by the Department of Work and Pensions and removing the benefits cap would significantly strengthen the benefits safety net for many of our lowest income households, whilst aligning the national minimum wage with the Real Living Wage would offer much needed support for working families (see Sustain’s letter to Liz Truss detailing Ten actions which could help our food system).
The Government could also consider targeting the rising cost of public transport. Here in Liverpool, the combined authority have capped single bus journeys in the region at a maximum of £2 from September, in a bid to help residents who are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis; meaning some passengers will save up to 13% versus the current cost of their journey. The Department for Transport have also announced this scheme would be rolled out nationally next year from January – March 2023 to help tackle the cost of living crisis. However, European countries including France, Germany and Ireland have taken a step further by offering significantly subsidised or even free train travel as a way of helping people cope with the cost-of-living crisis. Furthermore, the cost-of-living crisis has already arrived, families need support now rather than waiting until next year to benefit from any subsidised travel.
One study across the whole of Europe found that some of the UK’s largest cities – Birmingham, London and Greater Manchester – are ranked the worst for public transport affordability, with residents being asked to fork out 8-10% of their household budget on monthly travel costs compared to just 2% in Oslo.
Freeing up this household cost could go towards other important household costs, such as food bills, not to mention encourage more sustainable forms of travel.
Food for thought
The government’s previous cabinet, through the existing National Obesity Strategy, appeared to be sensitised to the importance of reducing obesity and taking a population level approach to healthy weight. This was largely brought about due to the stark evidence linking obesity to Covid-19 complications; and cited the need to ‘build back healthier’.
Last year’s National Child Measurement Programme statistics were sobering, showing almost a 5% increase in obesity at both reception and year 6 age.
This review into obesity policy is terrible timing for the nation’s health. We urge the government to stand firm and progress with the original proposed actions to reduce the prevalence of obesity.
Dr Naomi Maynard is the Good Food Programme Director at Feeding Liverpool, the city of Liverpool’s food alliance. Prior to this role, Naomi worked as a Senior Researcher for Church Army, and Food Insecurity Lead Executive for Together Liverpool.
https://www.feedingliverpool.org/ / Twitter: @feedingliverpool @goodfoodlpool
Beth Bradshaw is a Project Manager and Registered Associate Nutritionist working at the public health charity Food Active. Beth is currently co-chair of the good food plan policy and advocacy community group.
https://foodactive.org.uk/ / Twitter: @food_active