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.
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.
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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