Food for thought: how the UK food strategy is trying to revolutionise the way we think about and access food

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Research has shown that healthy food choices are three times more expensive than unhealthy ones, food bank use is at it highest ever level and the NHS is anticipating significant struggles in long term treatment of people with conditions linked to obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

A forecast published in a report by the Food Foundation showed that if we continue at our current rate and type of food consumption 22% of children born in 2020 will be overweight or obese by age 5, rising to 46% by the time they reach age 21.

But the impact doesn’t stop there. The food system – agriculture, food production, distribution and retail combined – releases more greenhouse gases than any other sector apart from energy. In the UK, the food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions – but that figure rises to around 30% if we factor in the emissions produced by all the food we import.

The food we eat – and the way we produce it – is doing damage to both the environment and our health and the government is now trying to take steps to mitigate the damage, and improve our health and wellbeing in the process through the roll out of a national food strategy.

Fixing a broken system

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that between April 2020 and March 2021, a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given to people in crisis. The increasing use of foodbanks shows just how deeply entwined inequality, food and health are, and how important it is for a robust and equitable food strategy to be rolled out.

The Broken Plate 2021 report from the Food foundation provides an overview of the food system in the UK, looking across four main themes:

  • making healthier options more appealing;
  • making healthier options more affordable;
  • making healthier and more sustainable options more available; and
  • addressing inequalities in food so that everyone can have the chance to live longer, healthier lives.

In July 2021 the UK government published a review into how the food system in the UK works and the interventions that could be brought in to prevent the harms from what we eat and the way we eat. The plan sets out recommendations and a strategy for the future which focuses on food being equitable, accessible, healthier, and sustainable.

The recommendations cover a number of key themes:

  • escape the “junk food cycle”, including introducing a Salt and Sugar Reformulation Tax;
  • reduce diet-related inequality, including extending eligibility for free school meals;
  • make the best use of our land – including guaranteeing agricultural payments to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use; and
  • create a long term shift in food culture, including the development of a robust system of data collection and reporting to help monitor long term progress.

Inequality exacerbated by unequal access to food

One of the most pressing issues around food is its availability and its ability to exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly among disadvantaged groups. We have already seen that food bank use is high (disproportionately so among lower income groups) and that eating healthier food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

The shelf life of more unhealthy and highly processed food is also often longer, so it is easier to store, and food can be spread out and eaten across multiple days more easily. Processed foods, which are often higher in sugar, salt and trans fats (unhealthy fats) also often require less cooking (both in terms of heat energy required to cook them and knowledge of how to prepare them) which for people with reduced access to kitchens, experience of fuel poverty or limited knowledge of preparing food can be more convenient. Research consistently shows that people who fall into these groups are significantly more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and have experience of poverty.

Steps are being taken to try and improve access to healthier food for people living on lower incomes, including free school meals and (with a bit of persuasion from Marcus Rashford) a wider roll out to also offer meals during school holidays. The government also runs a voucher system for new parents to help them get access to fresh food like fruit and vegetables.

More recently there has also been discussion about the roll out of “food on prescription” services, both for those people on lower incomes and for those people who are at risk of medical complications or disease as a result of being overweight or obese.

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Sustainable as well as healthy

As has been made clear in the reports, food systems don’t just impact on us as individuals, they also have a significant impact on the environment. The changing climate is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, including multiple extreme weather events, the publication of an IPCC report on climate change, and the run up to COP26, due to be held in Glasgow. So the way we grow and process our food, and how this negatively impacts our environment is coming under greater scrutiny.

Currently, many practices are having a negative and detrimental impact on our environment across a number of areas including carbon emissions, water pollution, reduction in soil health, loss of biodiversity, land use/deforestation.

And commentators are now emphasising that our food system as well as being healthy and accessible should also be sustainable, with programmes developed to reduce food waste, support community-based agriculture schemes, help farmers to transition to more sustainable ways to farm and use land and stimulate demand for in season, sustainably grown, locally sourced food.

Final Thoughts

Food, and our relationship with it is becoming increasingly important, not only for our own personal health and wellbeing, but also for the health of communities more generally, and the health of our planet.

Sustainable, healthy and equitable food systems help to promote healthier choices and reduce our impact on the planet. And food can also play its part in helping to relieve other pressures on society, like food poverty, inequality and the rising use of food banks. Food on prescription services can help support people to make better choices and reduce the risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity.

In short, food is not just vital for life, but also for living well.


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Healthy ageing: how health inequality can be tackled at the local level

Image: Peter Kindersley via Centre for Ageing Better

Older people make up a significant portion of our population, and projections show the proportion of people over the age of 60 within the global population is set to rise even further over the coming years. ONS data shows by 2066 there will be a further 8.6 million projected UK residents aged 65 years and over, taking the total number in this group to 20.4 million and making up 26% of the total population.

Supporting people to age well, and age healthily is something which both local and national policymakers will have to take account of in order to not only ensure good quality of life for their ageing populations but also ensure that services are not overwhelmed.

Studies show the higher levels of deprivation people face in their earlier years, the more likely they are to enter older age in poor health and die younger compared with people who experience lower levels of deprivation. This highlights the need to tackle inequality across the life course, with the preventative action having a positive knock on impact on health inequalities in later life.

Some of the main drivers of inequalities include: social exclusion and isolation; access to and awareness of health and other community services; financial difficulties including fuel poverty and housing issues; insecure or low paid employment, with reduced opportunity to save or enrol in a formal pension to prepare for retirement; a lack of transport and distance from services; low levels of physical activity; and mobility or existing poor health, often characterised by long term chronic health issues.

These inequalities often combine and overlap to create even more challenging situations as people move into older life. More recent research has shown that the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities further.

Tackling inequalities at the local level

Alongside the national discussions around ageing, local demographic change has received comparatively less attention, despite place-based policies and concepts like “ageing well in place” being used in public health conversations for a number of years.

Research from the Resolution Foundation explores the intersection between demography and place, and its implications for politics and policy while further research is looking increasingly at local level case studies to highlight pockets of best practice which could help to inform the national approach.

A review from Public Health England looked at the specific experiences of older people in coastal and rural areas and the specific challenges they face in comparison to people living urban areas, exploring local level interventions and interventions which adopt a place- based approach, responding to the specific needs of people living in the area.

Other research in this area stresses that councils have a clear leadership role in supporting an ageing society and that they are uniquely placed to create strategies which reflect the needs of their populations. Through local engagement of older people systematically and regularly, and through co-production and co-design in the production of local policies and services, councils are in a position to underpin a more positive outlook on ageing, ensuring that older people are regarded as full citizens, rather than objects of charity or pity.

Approaches to poverty reduction in Greater Manchester

In Greater Manchester, healthy ageing and age inequalities have been made mayoral priorities and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority set up the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub to respond to what policymakers there see as the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population.

In 2018 the city published an “Age Friendly Strategy” to promote increased social inclusion within the city by trying to tackle the barriers to inclusion created by poverty and inequality, including creating age friendly places which allow older people to participate within their local communities, and promoting healthy ageing through strategies like GM Active Ageing, a partnership with Sport England.

Image: Peter Kindersley via Centre for Ageing Better

Creating a consensus on healthy ageing

The Centre for Ageing Better and Public Health England established 5 principles for healthy ageing which they are urging government and other policy actors to adopt to support future healthy ageing the five principles are:

  1. Prevention
  2. Opportunities
  3. Good homes and neighbourhoods
  4. Narrowing inequalities
  5. Tackling ageism

These principles can be used as building blocks to help organisations create strategies and policies which accurately reflect the core needs of people as they age. One thing which continues to be a challenge, however, is integrating intersectionality into both research and strategies or frameworks on ageing.

Not treating “older people” as one homogenous group, but taking account of the individual experiences of specific groups and how this may impact on their experience of inequalities: this is something researchers are making efforts to resolve in their work, and while there are limited studies which look specifically at BAME or LGBT groups, in the future taking account of intersectionality in ageing and inequalities will become more commonplace.

The future of ageing

We are living longer than ever before. Taking steps to reduce inequalities and support healthy ageing will ensure that those extra years are fulfilling, both for the individual and for society.

Helping people to continue to contribute to society, to really live into old age, embrace and enjoy it and not just exist in old age should be a priority for everyone, Reducing inequalities to support people to age well will be a major contributor to ensuring this happens.


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