19 July 2021
Our priorities from the National Food Strategy
Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was published today. Here we take a moment to digest the report and highlight our priority recommendations.
The report presents a bold plan for the future of the UK food system and a powerful new framing of the issues facing it. Our priority at The Food Foundation has always been to champion the need for everyone to be able to afford and access a healthy, sustainable diet. The National Food Strategy makes a bullet-proof case for the need for Government intervention and leadership to make this possible – championing structural solutions to re-shape our food environment and reduce inequalities (rather than solutions that focus on individual action).
The need for visionary leadership has never been so great, and the Government’s response to Henry’s recommendations – due in 6 months time – will be a crucial litmus test. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to pivot the food system to protect human and planetary health. If current trends are not halted, 37% of children born in 2021 will be living with overweight or obesity by age 11, and 76% will have overweight or obesity by age 65.
We welcome below the robust recommendations on sugar and salt reformulation taxes, mandatory business reporting, preventing children’s food insecurity, increasing access to fruit and vegetables (particularly among low income groups), and strengthening national and local food system governance – recommendations which align closely with The Food Foundation’s priorities and which will be crucial in ensuring that everyone can afford and access healthy, sustainable food. We will be advocating strongly for these recommendations to be accepted by the Government.
Sugar and salt reformulation taxes
The new strategy’s call for us to ‘escape the junk food cycle’ resonates powerfully with the picture presented in our annual Broken Plate report. The Broken Plate shows that childhood obesity levels are at a critical level and have not been falling in recent years, that children in the UK are amongst the shortest in high income western countries at age 5, and that diabetes-related amputations have increased by 24% in the past five years. The food choices that we are presented with in our daily life – in local environments which are awash with junk food advertising and convenient, cheap and accessible unhealthy food options – do not make it easy to be healthy. Only structural changes to our food system will make the levels of impact that are needed.
The National Food Strategy’s proposal for a new salt and sugar reformulation tax is an exciting proposition – the team’s modelling shows that it could reduce average calorie consumption by 15-38 calories/person/day, reduce sugar consumption by 4-10g/person/day, and reduce salt consumption by 0.2-0.6g/person/day. These are seriously impressive numbers, particularly considering that the strategy also suggests that an average reduction of just 24 calories/person/day is what is needed to stop the UK population as a whole gaining further weight. With just 8% of cereals and 4% of yoghurts marketed towards children currently containing low levels of sugar, a strong tax to reduce sugar levels in children’s food is vital. We believe that this new tax would have the power to shift business incentives strongly towards reformulation.
The proportion of breakfast cereals marketed at children categorised as high, medium and low in sugar and salt, 2019-2021
Proportion of yoghurts marketed at children categorised as high, medium and low in sugar in 2021
Though the modelled price impacts of the tax for consumers are small (the sugary drinks levy has demonstrated that most manufacturers will seek to reformulate to avoid price rises), every penny counts for those on low incomes. The strategy’s proposal to reinvest much of the revenue generated in measures to reduce food insecurity and boost access to healthy foods in lower-income groups, therefore, is crucial. Though we recognise that it was beyond the scope of the strategy to make recommendations on welfare, we wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed in the report regarding the necessity of also supporting incomes to make a healthy, sustainable diet affordable for all. In the first instance we would like to see the Government retaining the £20 increase to Universal Credit. In the longer term the cost of a healthy, sustainable diet should be accounted for when setting both benefits levels and the minimum wage. We would encourage DWP to engage with the report, and to consider what more can be done to support the 26% of Universal Credit claimants that experienced very low food security before Covid.
Mandatory business reporting
A lack of published data on food industry practices is hindering progress towards a healthy and sustainable food system. Our Plating Up Progress project aims to increase the visibility and comparability of data on food businesses’ targets, commitments, and progress. The analysis is based on information in the public domain – mostly information that is self-reported by the businesses themselves on a voluntary basis. The project has revealed limitations of this inconsistent approach to reporting, and on many issues we see a large number of companies failing to report at all.
Mandatory business reporting against a suite of sales-weighted metrics, as recommended by the National Food Strategy, would level the playing field for those businesses that are genuinely seeking to make progress. It would drive-up minimum standards across the board amongst businesses that are less engaged. If carefully implemented, with particular regard to the specificities of different sectors, it should also help bring clarity to required definitions (e.g. on meat alternatives) and methodologies, as well as address issues relating to data availability that are currently faced by voluntary schemes. We discussed the benefits of mandatory reporting at length in our first Plating Up Progress Policy Brief.
Members of the team working on our Peas Please project are also particularly pleased to see that the reporting requirement would include sales of vegetables. Several retailers have recently set SMART targets for increasing the amount of vegetables they sell and have committed to transparent reporting of vegetable sales as part of their Peas Please commitments, but this is by no means an approach that has been universally adopted across the food industry. A universal mandatory reporting requirement should help to level the playing field and help to drive faster progress in increasing the UK’s stubbornly low fruit and vegetable consumption.
We note with interest the strategy’s suggestion that business reporting may drive greater levels of proactive advertising and promotion of healthier foods. Though we welcome recent action to restrict the advertising and promotion of less healthy foods, it has been a long-standing priority for The Food Foundation to also see healthier food promoted more visibly. This is an issue on which we will continue to push the Government in coming months. Currently only 2.5% of advertising spend goes towards promoting fruit and veg, for example.
In addition to what is recommended in the strategy, we will also continue to push for mandatory business reporting on topics that are crucial but not unique to the food industry – such as Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation in supply chains.
Preventing children’s food insecurity – Free School Meals, Holiday clubs and Healthy Start
Food insecurity levels in the UK were high before Covid-19 and have been exacerbated further by the pandemic. Since March 2020 we have been monitoring food insecurity levels through regular nationally-representative polling – at the peak in March 2020 21% of households with children were experiencing food- insecurity, falling back to 10% in January 2021, though the rates continue to remain substantially elevated compared to pre-Covid.
Our Children’s Right2Food Campaign was established to give voice to the lived experience of children and young people growing up in food insecurity. Over the last year, our Young Food Ambassadors have been supporting Marcus Rashford’s campaign to improve access to sufficient, healthy food amongst children vulnerable to food insecurity. We are delighted to see a continued focus in the National Food Strategy on the asks from Marcus’ End Child Food Poverty campaign that were not addressed by the Government last year – extending Free School Meal and Healthy Start eligibility, and securing long-term funding for the Holiday, Activities and Food Programme.
As schools seek to ensure that children are able to catch-up on the learning that they have missed during Covid-19, it has never been more important that all children have access to the healthy food that they need to learn well. Free School Meals and Healthy Start vouchers provide a vital nutritional safety net for low-income children, and it is not fair that some children living in poverty miss out. Analysis of the Government’s own data that appeared in the National Food Strategy shows that nearly half of food insecure families with children do not qualify for Free School Meals under the current threshold. We therefore strongly welcome the cost-effective and targeted proposed expansion in eligibility to both Free School Meals and Healthy Start, and the additional extension of the Healthy Start scheme to those aged 4, closing the gap in support that previously existed between Healthy Start support ending and Free School Meals starting.
The strategy also recommends a concerted push to drive up Healthy Start uptake – awareness of the scheme amongst those that are already eligible has improved over the last year due to our work to encourage retailers to add value to the scheme and via Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, but still remains low. A £5 million communications campaign, as recommended in both part 1 and part 2 of the National Food Strategy is urgently required – this could target pregnant women, low income families, and those health professionals who work with these groups. The upcoming digitisation of the scheme this Autumn would be an opportune moment for this.
Healthy Start uptake across England, Apr 2020 to May 2021
The Holiday Activities and Food Programme, rolled out nationally for the first time this year following Marcus’ campaigning, provides additional essential support to families during the school holidays and needs to be put on a low-term footing.
We welcome the explicit reference in the strategy that all three of these programmes should be open to children from households with the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ immigration condition – a group which is particularly vulnerable to destitution.
Increasing access to fruit and vegetables
Just 33% of adults and 12% of 11-18 year olds currently eat the recommended 5 portions a day of fruit and vegetables, with the poorest 20% eating on average one portion of veg less a day than the richest 20%. Our Peas Please project aims to increase vegetable consumption nationally, and we also work through the Fruit and Veg Alliance to convene horticultural producers and civil society organisations in support of increased fruit and veg production and consumption.
We discuss the broader set of food-based dietary targets recommended in the National Food Strategy below – we particularly support a new national target to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 30% by 2032.
We also support innovative recommendations targeted at improving access to fruit and vegetables amongst lower-income groups and in schools. Social prescribing of fruit and vegetables has shown great promise overseas (for example in the USA – as explored in our 2017 Eating Better for Less report), and we strongly welcome the proposed pilot schemes to gather evidence on its potential impacts here. The National Food Strategy’s new vision for a renewed and more ambitious approach to food in schools – the Eat and Learn programme – includes a major upgrade to the current School Fruit and Vegetable scheme, which has long suffered from poor quality produce and lacklustre delivery. Devolving responsibility to schools will allow them to purchase better quality, local produce, and to deliver that to students in more inspiring ways. Our sister-organisation, Veg Power, provides resources for engaging and fun schools activities designed to encourage children to eat more veg – inspiration for what could be achieved in all schools through Eat and Learn. Extending eligibility and improving uptake of the Healthy Start scheme will also be important in supporting fruit and vegetable access for those on low-incomes who are pregnant or have young children.
Finally, we’re pleased to see the strategy encourage Defra to invest innovation funds in growing the horticultural sector. Historically under-funded, there is huge potential for UK horticulture to support increased production and consumption of fruit and veg. With the end of the CAP scheme and the EU’s Fruit and Vegetable Aid Scheme following Brexit, this is a really exciting time to rethink and redesign how we support the UK’s edible horticulture sector. Currently, we grow only 53% of our vegetables and just 16% of our fruit in the UK, with smaller producers often struggling to enter the market.
Strengthening national and local food system governance
If long-term change in the food system is to be delivered, we need credible and robust systems of policy responsibility and accountability.
We welcome the proposed set of four national food-based dietary targets: 30% more fruit and vegetables, 50% more fibre, 25% less HFSS foods and 30% less meat by 2032. National targets will help drive progress amongst all stakeholders and at all levels of the food system to achieve the dietary shifts that are so essential for our health and the environment.
Linking the national targets with what happens in the food industry will be crucial. Our Plating Up Progress work tracks where food businesses are on targets like this and, whilst not yet mainstream in the food industry, we are beginning to see sales-weighted targets around healthy food, HFSS foods and more transparency on meat sales. The strategy’s mandatory reporting recommendation (discussed above) will support alignment between business reporting and national-level targets.
The proposal to require the Food Standards Agency to produce an annual report to Parliament on progress against the national targets, other food system metrics, and the information reported by businesses, would provide a regular sense-check on the adequacy and effectiveness of policy responses.
In addition, our work with Birmingham City Council and other cities around the world through our Food Cities 2022 programme, and with Veg Cities through our Peas Please initiative, has demonstrated the impact that can be had at a local level, and the importance of establishing strong national-local policy linkages. We therefore strongly welcome the suggestion that all local authorities should also be required to have their own food strategy.
The Government must respond to the National Food Strategy report within 6 months. During that time, we will be campaigning for them to adopt the recommendations, and in particular the priority recommendations which we highlight here. A partial, piecemeal or watered-down response from the Government would demonstrate a fundamental lack of recognition of the extent of the crisis which the food system now finds itself facing. Let’s hope the government gives the report the attention, and action, it deserves.