Blogs Sugar Smart UK

Beyond Fizz Free: opportunities for action to heal our bodies and our planet

After a successful Fizz Free February campaign highlighting fizzy drinks’ impact on climate, Sugar Smart lead Vera Zakharov maps out further opportunities to weave together public health and climate and nature protection agendas.

Bristol BBB Ad Campaign image credit Bristol Food Network

Bristol BBB Ad Campaign image credit Bristol Food Network

Sustain has long advocated for holistic policies that address challenges around health, sustainability and justice in unison. But these are not just competing agendas for policymakers to compromise on – the Sustainable Food Places network of food partnerships and alliances demonstrates daily through projects, activities and local policy work that the best interventions can deliver on both public health and ecological health. And in my few years working on the Sugar Smart campaign, I have witnessed council public health teams likewise embrace and deliver on this holistic way of thinking.

On a personal level, I observe daily the impact of the junk food industry on our environment as I walk past my local woodland and wildlife-rich urban fringes clogged by chocolate wrappers and empty soft drink bottles, only to be confronted by bus stop adverts for the same products a few paces down. But whilst the case has been made clear by the Lancet and others on the need to mitigate climate change for the sake of human health, there is less focus on the need to tackle the drivers of diet-related ill health for the sake of their planetary impacts as well. It seems about time.

In 2019, Sustain declared a climate and nature emergency. As part of this our campaigns, including Sugar Smart, identified ways that their work can address the climate and nature emergency as well. It wasn’t a huge leap, as our Tooth Fairies have already rubbed shoulders with climate activists at Coke Truck Tour protests, and our work on free drinking water access has led to collaborations with City to Sea’s Refill work, including our 50 Fountains Challenge.

As part of this journey, we dedicated this year’s Fizz Free February to focus on health and climate, highlighting the impacts of fizzy drinks on our carbon footprint, land and biodiversity loss, water loss and plastic pollution. The campaign had in previous years proved successful on health messaging alone, with numerous councils, then Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson, ministers and other public figures promoting the challenge. This year, in spite of unprecedented challenges facing local authorities, even more joined forces to promote our messages, reaching new audiences while also recognising their role in doing more on climate.

There’s no better time to embrace this role than now, as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, and as numerous councils themselves declare a climate and nature emergency. It’s more important than ever that policies and interventions on public health also help us reach our climate and nature targets. Looking beyond Fizz Free February, here are other ways local practitioners, policymakers and community activists can join forces to improve both the health and sustainability of our food system.


Join the Refill Revolution

Since the launch of the Sugar Smart Campaign, local areas have linked sugar reduction with increasing public drinking water access, including drinking fountains and water refill points in businesses and venues. Campaigns in Bristol, Newcastle and Barnet, just to name a few, have partnered up with local Refill teams to campaign on the many benefits of choosing tap water as the best hydration option. This has linked up public health practitioners with community environmental campaigners, bringing together a more diverse cohort of communities under a shared goal. It's the kind of synergy Sustain and Sustainable Food Places see as central to a good food movement.

As Covid lockdown restrictions ease and people reconnect with their public spaces, make up for lost time by getting back to work on the 50 Fountains Challenge and Refill, especially in the lead up to World Refill Day on 16 June

Block out harmful ads

The success of the junk food ad ban on London’s transport network has led to similar policies implemented across a growing number of councils. More recently, Bristol has joined these ranks becoming the first local authority outside of London to restrict ads and promotions for products that are high in fat, sugar and/or salt. Work on this policy has strengthened links between the council and the grassroots AdBlock Bristol campaign, which helped build a public mandate for the policy and has further encouraged the council to look at including ads that promote high carbon products such as cars. The effort coincided with a Bristol Bites Back Better public ad campaign developed by the Bristol Food Network as part of Bristol’s bid to become a Gold Sustainable Food City, showing that advertising spaces can be used to promote a resilient future through good food. 

In your local efforts toward a gold standard around good food, make sure that a healthier and more sustainable council advertising policy features front and centre.

Get policymakers on board

Local elections are the ideal time to root priorities on public health and climate into policymakers’ agendas. The upcoming local council elections on 6 May offer the opportunity get commitments from candidates to put human and ecological health ahead of commercial interests. Sustainable Food Places has developed guidance for organisations and communities to engage local candidates. We also want to see this year’s elections mark a return to progress already made on health and climate, such as the Mayor of London’s ambitious scheme to bring in 100 new drinking fountains, which was sadly put on hold due to the Covid pandemic.

Consider interventions that offer a net gain for public health and climate targets, such as healthier advertising, public tap water access, junk food sales restrictions, and catering improvements, alongside ensuring that food features prominently in council climate emergency plans, and interrogate election candidates on these matters.

This year presents itself as a time to return wholeheartedly to work on building a healthier and more sustainable food system, whether it’s public health teams returning to healthy eating work, food partnerships focusing more on policy and community advocacy after a year dominated by emergency food responses, or grassroots groups reconvening to campaign on food issues. This is also a crucial time to de-silo work around health and climate. It’s clear that the many drivers of both the obesity and climate and nature crises are one and the same, so our locally-grown solutions should likewise tackle both simultaneously.

Sugar Smart is a feature campaign of Sustainable Food Places, led by Sustain.

Published Tuesday 16 March 2021

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Vera is the Sustainable Food Places Local Action Coordinator, linking up local activity across the network to help drive national-level policy change. She oversees the programme’s Good Food Movement work, helping food partnerships connect with grassroots communities and support resident-led action. She also leads on the Veg Cities campaign and the annual Sustainable Food Places Day of Celebration and Action.

Vera Zakharov
Campaign Coordinator
Sustainable Food Places

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