The way Britain produces, manufactures, sells and consumes food is a barrier to healthy eating, hitting the poorest hardest, a group of Peers has said.
The House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee has concluded that current government policies - or lack of them - condemn many children to a life of ill health, cost the NHS billions, and damage the environment.
In a wide-ranging and alarming report entitled 'Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food', the committee says that the government’s recommended healthy diet is too expensive for many families.
Without enough time, knowledge and money to shop for healthier food, the poorest are most at risk from a system which actively encourages highly processed, less healthy food by making it cheaper, more heavily promoted and easier to buy, the committee said.
The peers believe urgent action is needed to ensure a healthier population, a healthier environment, to level up the most deprived communities and save the NHS billions spent treating obesity and avoidable diet-related diseases.
People in Britain consume more highly processed food than those in any other European country, and Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe. Adults and children living in the most deprived areas are about twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas, contributing to a difference in healthy life expectancy of about 20 years between the richest and poorest people in the country.
Covid-19 has made an already dreadful situation worse and should be a “wake-up call” for urgent action, according to the committee. Before the coronavirus pandemic too many people did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families properly, relying on food banks to survive, and in the past few months the use of food banks has shot up by a reported 81 per cent.
Lord Krebs, chair of the committee, said: “Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.
“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of. The government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”
The committee wants the government to:
- Start to measure how many people live with food insecurity, and analyse why;
- Understand the cost of a healthy diet and incorporate this into benefits calculations;
- Act to curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods by the food industry;
- Step up pressure on the food industry to reduce sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and calories in processed food, and introduce mandatory requirements where change has not happened;
- Ensure that food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as Healthy Start and free school meals are properly funded, implemented and monitored;
- Establish an independent body to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy and report annually to Parliament on progress;
- Use the opportunity of the Agriculture Bill to encourage production and consumption of healthier food and ensure that it delivers the public environmental goods it is designed to.
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said: “This landmark report clearly explains the raft of actions needed to tackle our nation’s dietary inequalities which have been highlighted so starkly by the Covid pandemic.
“This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest. People can no longer wait for lengthy government consultations which languish in Whitehall. Every day that passes where the odds are stacked against families securing a healthy diet is a missed opportunity to secure a healthy future for our children.”
Agriculture is also “environmentally unsustainable”, according to the committee. If Britain is to meet its net zero emissions target to combat climate change, farmers must be supported fully and rewarded for environmental outcomes, it believes.