Chris Holmes, Managing Director, Shift Food Programme, and Sarah Hickey, Child Obesity Programme Director, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Jun 22, 2018
Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and Shift have been working together, as part of the Charity’s new childhood obesity programme. We’re interested in how food environments help or hinder people to live well. Why? To improve the availability and access to nutritious diets for families living in the more deprived areas of Lambeth and Southwark. We start here because there’s more and more evidence pointing to obesity being ‘a normal response to an abnormal environment’. It’s not surprising people put on weight as the spaces where children and families spend their time - particularly in urban areas of deprivation - can make it very difficult to eat well.
So we wanted to see food environments from the perspectives of families themselves. Not just what’s difficult, but also practical opportunities to meet the needs of children, young people and parents.
What emerged is that many families’ food habits are a response to other issues that have nothing to do with food.
The Families and Food report and film summarises the findings from spending over 200 hours with 44 parents and young people living in low income households in Lambeth and Southwark. We captured families’ travel and eating habits through food diaries and location tracking, were with them when they walked to school, shopped, cooked and ate. Simply, we got to know them and their ways. What emerged is that many families’ food habits are a response to other issues that have nothing to do with food.
In the moment of making decisions about what to eat, these issues feel more pressing and immediate, whilst you can always put-off eating more healthily until tomorrow. The more pressure and therefore the less healthy headspace you have, the harder it is to invest the personal energy required to eat a good diet.
When we are least able to resist, our environment nudges us to eat less healthy foods. From the moment we step out of the front door, we are bombarded by messages to eat, eat, eat. We need to reduce this noise. Some parents talked about cramped or shared kitchens which made cooking more difficult and where nobody wanted to spend time. Yet some had simple and creative ‘life-hacks’ that we could all use to put temptation out of reach.
What’s tricky is that we don’t realise how much we are creatures of habit. Most parents and young people tended to make the same journeys and types of purchases every day. Our routines, in all aspects of life, are very fixed so the strongest opportunities to change things occur when we experience life changes - leaving home, moving in with a partner, starting a family.
Those habits develop early through our experiences as children and continue to be subject to social influences through adolescence and adulthood. Parents talked about how their cooking and shopping habits had been influenced by their parents. Young people talked about the role of social media channels and friends when describing their food choices. The downside of this can be blind spots when it comes to exploring alternative food options.
As these themes played out, families were making decisions around food that didn’t always feel like ideal options to them. They were trying to balance competing priorities whilst striving to help their children to be happy and healthy.
Our routines, in all aspects of life, are very fixed so the strongest opportunities to change things occur when we experience life changes - leaving home, moving in with a partner, starting a family.
We believe the opportunities for creating food environments that would better serve families’ needs for health, affordability, convenience, taste and being social are out there. We’re looking for others working in this space to help with these challenges:
We think that there are many ways to solve these questions, and the others highlighted in the report. Different types of organisations will have a range of creative ways to meet these opportunities. We hope that exploring the urban food environment from a family perspective will give you inspiration. We’d love to hear your solutions for the opportunity spaces shared in the report.
10 January, 2020
How does urban street design shape the way young people experience food in Southwark? Sophia Schuff from urban design planners, Gehl, shares how we got under the skin of young people’s daily habits to understand how the built environment could improve childhood obesity.