Kieron Boyle, Chief Executive, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Jun 29, 2018
There’s a lot to be optimistic about in the government’s new childhood obesity strategy. The thing we need more than anything to beat this challenge is leadership – and a call to halve childhood obesity levels by 2030 provides exactly that.
Behind some of the more eye-catching initiatives, a few important signals stand out.
The first is the commitment to reduce the gap between childhood obesity levels in the richest and poorest areas – a gap that has grown by more than 50% in the past ten years. We should be clear what this commitment means.
For some families the huge pressures of just trying to get by can really limit the headspace to make healthy decisions. The most effective way to address obesity, therefore, is to change environments.
Given that children from poorer backgrounds are nearly three times more likely to be obese than children from richer ones, halving childhood obesity doesn’t just mean reducing the inequality gap. It means definitively closing it. That’s a bold and welcome statement, and indeed the focus of our own 10-year childhood obesity programme.
The second is the framing of the issue, which is almost exclusively on making the easy choice the healthy choice.
This is exactly the right way to go. All the evidence suggests that obesity is a normal response to abnormal environments, and that we need to be sympathetic to the effect of scarcity on decision-making. For some families the huge pressures of just trying to get by can really limit the headspace to make healthy decisions. The most effective way to address obesity, therefore, is to change environments. This requires activity from businesses, local authorities, schools, shops and people themselves – all of which are given clear jobs to do in the strategy.
The third is the focus on the local. Childhood obesity is a national problem, but it would be a mistake to think all the answers lie there too.
It’s good to see work going on here in Lambeth and Southwark highlighted in the strategy. Our own findings throughout have been that context is key. Culture, ethnicity, income and language all have an impact – and what works in one place won’t necessarily work in another. What can be shared are evidence bases and processes, and the strategy commits to doing exactly this.
Of course, like every strategy, this one could have gone further. There are very few deadlines on the new commitments. A number of areas for consultation should have moved straight to action. For a ‘whole of government’ strategy, it doesn’t look much further than health and education (what about housing, or transport, or justice). And it feels like a missed opportunity to really explore and support the role of civil society.
So let’s keep up the pace on things. But this is a good plan to get behind; what’s needed now – from all of us across the country – is action.
30 June, 2020
Our Programme Director, Sarah Hickey, shares how we’re collaborating with the commercial sector to tackle the inequality that prevents children from accessing nutritious food.