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How to build a healthier food system - reflections from Sustain's evidence to the House of Lords

At the House of Lords inquiry on Food, Diet and Obesity, Fran Bernhardt representing Sustain, provided insights into policies restricting advertising of unhealthy food and the ways in which corporations seek to undermine them.

Fran Bernhardt giving evidence at the House of Lords inquiry. Credit: House of Lords

Fran Bernhardt giving evidence at the House of Lords inquiry. Credit: House of Lords

So here we are: the year 2024 and food related ill health is at staggering rates. Record numbers of us now live with type 2 diabetes, hundreds of thousands of us are admitted to hospital with malnutrition every year and obesity rates have doubled over the last few decades. Because the thing is, we’re flooded with unhealthy food, but fruit and veg is out of reach for many. An unwell workforce getting sicker by the day doesn’t spell good news for the future of Britain, or equal opportunities - because those already at an economic and social disadvantage are bearing the brunt of this problem.

Meanwhile the Government has taken a rather subtle approach to dealing with this ongoing disaster. Twenty years ago, the Government published a report that was meant to solve all this, and yet food related ill health continue to rise.

The House of Lords have decided to roll their sleeves up and have launched an inquiry into Food, Diet and Obesity, which started last week and over the next few months will hear from a range of experts before making recommendations to the Government on what should happen next. I gave evidence alongside Katharine Jenner from the Obesity Health Alliance and Anna Taylor from The Food Foundation to give an overview of the problem and set out solutions.

In that hour and a quarter, we covered many topics from the wider public health landscape to the strong evidence-based interventions and the overwhelmingly unhealthy products on our high streets.

Here are the main points we hope the Lords will carry through:

  1. We already have solid frameworks for defining unhealthy food. They can be tweaked to bring them up to speed with the latest science where there is robust evidence for doing so, but we must not chuck out what we already have. Additionally, the Government needs to make proper use of the definitions and tools we already have available rather than watering them down as we’ve seen with countless policies.
  2. National government should be emboldened by local governments’ excellent leadership on health. Local governments’ advertising policies have solid precedent and evidence of impact. Similarly, planning restrictions on Hot Food Takeaways have successfully reduced the flood of unhealthy food on our streets. The Government needs to build on this by bringing both of these into national policies in full.
  3. More than 80% of children are not getting their 5-a-day. But all children deserve to be healthy and eat healthy food, regardless of where they’re from. The government needs to level the playing field with three interventions proven to improve all children’s access to fruit and veg: Healthy Start vouchers, the School Fruit and Veg scheme and Universal Free School Meals.
  4. The Government needs to incentivise the food industry to meet the challenge of providing healthier food for all. We know they can do it but they need the incentives to make it happen and make sure there is a level playing field between them.
  5. We need to stop industry from lobbying against and undermining successful health interventions. There is growing evidence of how the techniques used by Big Tobacco are now being used to prevent progress on healthier food policies.

We already have the research, the evidence and the policies. Now we just need the Government to find the courage and determination to put them into place so that we can build in flood defences and create a system where healthy and sustainable food is the easiest choice for everyone. Let’s hope the Lords can make that happen.

Lords' Inquiry into Food, Diet and Obesity information page

Watch the live session with Fran Bernhardt, Kat Jenner & Anna Taylor

Published Thursday 15 February 2024

Good Food Local: Good Food Local supports local authorities to prioritise good food and commit to action on a breadth of food issues.

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Fran Bernhardt is Commercial Determinants Coordinator at Sustain. Commercial determinants are industry activities which affect our health, inequalities and climate. Since 2018, she has advised the Mayor of London's team on writing and implementing the Healthier Food Advertising policy which restricts unhealthy food and drink advertising from the Transport for London network. This has led to a weekly reduction of 1,000 calories and a 20% reduction in sugary products in London households' purchases. It is estimated to prevent 100,000 cases of obesity, 3000 cases of diabetes and 2000 cases of heart disease plus it's expected to deliver a saving of £218 million to London's NHS over the lifetime of the current population.

Fran Bernhardt
Commercial Determinants Coordinator

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