“Voluntary National Review of Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals” Response
HM Government have recently published the Voluntary National Review (VNR) of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,1 an important mark in the sand of the UK’s progress on the SDGs. Our work to improve the food system and make it easier for everyone in the UK to have healthy and sufficient diets aligns most closely with SDG Goal 2 of Zero Hunger. While the VNR highlights some progress made towards achieving SDG 2, much further work is needed. Last year we contributed to UKSSD’s Measuring Up Report which showed that the UK is not performing well enough on all SDG 2 targets.2 This is particularly true for Target 2.2 on ending all forms of malnutrition, where we found there to be insufficient action in place that would adequately address the issues in the UK.
Malnutrition in all its forms in the UK is illustrated by the increasing rates of food insecurity and obesity; serious challenges which often co-exist. In the UK, 8.4 million people are living in food insecure households.3 61% of adults are either overweight or obese, which is contributing to increasing rates of non-communicable diseases and rising costs to our health care system.4 While the prevalence of people who are underweight is relatively low in the UK, low levels of micronutrient intake are surprisingly high due to diets rich in energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods, particularly among those on a low income. This is a result of a food system in which unhealthy calories are three times less expensive than healthy ones and tightening household resources.
The VNR focuses on Free School Meals (FSM) as an example of the SDG principal of “leave no one behind”, a key programme for improving nutrition among the children it targets. However, it is not leaving “no one behind” – the eligibility criteria for FSM after the age of 7 years excludes many children experiencing food poverty. Children who have No Recourse to Public Funds are often some of the poorest in the country and yet cannot claim free school meals. The Home Office does not have data on the number of children this affects. The Children’s Future Food Inquiry investigated the food situation and experiences of children living in poverty across the UK. It found that 23% of children who did not qualify for FSM had gone without lunch because they couldn’t afford it.5 We also know that the allocation of £2.30 per day is frequently insufficient for children to consume enough nutritious food throughout the school day.5 FSM also does not address the issue of holiday hunger which affects approximately 3 million children at risk of food insecurity during the summer holidays.6 The Young People’s #Right2Food charter, which came out of the inquiry, makes recommendations on policy actions needed to improve the current situation including increasing the eligibility criteria of FSM and expanding holiday provision programmes. The Young Food Ambassadors made a video describing the Inquiry and the #Right2Food charter which you can watch here.
The Healthy Start Scheme is also highlighted in the VNR as an example of “leave no one behind.” It is an important programme targeted at pregnant women and young children, providing those on a low income with vouchers that can be spent on milk, fruit and vegetables and formula. But the programme needs a major refresh in order to have its intended impact. The total number of people eligible for Healthy Start has reduced by 30% since 20117 with less than half of children living in poverty meeting eligibility criteria,5 and among those who are eligible for the scheme, many have difficulty registering. Over a 4 week period earlier this year only 54% of people who were eligible to apply were successfully registered.8 For those who do manage to apply and have the application accepted, the value of the voucher has not been increased since 2009 and has thus failed to keep pace with rising household costs. In order to make progress towards achieving SDG 2, the Government would need to take significant steps to improve the Healthy Start scheme as detailed in the #Right2Food charter including: expanding eligibility criteria starting with those on universal credit, increasing the value of the voucher, and introducing a programme to ensure all those who are eligible receive the scheme’s benefits. Scotland has recently made steps towards these improvements with the introduction of its revised Healthy Start scheme, called Best Start.
A critical gap in the VNR is the lack of focus on improving nutrition and nutrient intakes in the UK. The next steps identified in the VNR only discuss securing good nutrition in a global context with no specific actions for the UK. Given that 80% of adults and 95% of teenagers don’t eat enough vegetables,9 and that the report itself says nearly three-quarters of the population aren’t meeting the 5-a-day recommendation, we certainly have a lot of work to do in the UK.
In terms of next steps, we are delighted that the government is taking positive steps towards measuring household food security and food bank usage. The crucial question is how this information will then be translated into urgent policy steps to tackle food insecurity. For childhood obesity, we should now be aiming to take significant action to decrease the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity, towards which measures from the Childhood Obesity Plan will hopefully make some progress. We are excited that the recently launched National Food Strategy has been recognised in the VNR as an important next step in helping to achieve the goal of Zero Hunger. The Strategy aims to take steps towards improving food insecurity and creating a food system which supports healthy and sustainable diets.
The VNR has usefully highlighted where there are areas of progress, and where we need to do much more action in the future if we are to achieve the goals. Particularly on childhood obesity and food insecurity, the UK is not on track to meet the SDG targets – we need to do much more, much faster here at home. Specifically regarding food insecurity, issues highlighted by the Children’s Future Food Inquiry need to be addressed through implementing the recommendation in the #Right2Food charter to establish a Children’s Food Watchdog. The Watchdog, one of the Young Food Ambassador’s key recommendations, would spark much needed cross-government coordination and oversight on children’s food and contribute towards helping the UK meet SDG Goal 2.
- HM Government. Voluntary National Review on the Sustainable Development Goals.; June 2019.
- UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development. Measuring up: How the UK is performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. UK Stakeholders Sustainable Development.; 2018.
- Taylor A, Loopstra R. Too Poor to Eat: Food insecurity in the UK. The Food Foundation. 2016.
- House of Commons. House of Commons – Obesity Statistics. House Commons Brief Pap. 2018;(3336):1-34.
- The Food Foundation. Children’s Future Food Inquiry.; 2019.
- End Hunger UK. Holiday hunger – End Hunger UK. http://endhungeruk.org/holidayhunger/. Accessed June 27, 2019.
- Crawley H, Dodds R. The UK Healthy Start scheme. What happened? What next? First Steps Nutrition.; 2018
- Healthy Start Scheme: Written question – 264743 – UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2019-06-14/264743/. Accessed June 27, 2019.
- The Food Foundation. Veg Facts: A Briefing by the Food Foundation.; 2016.