Sarah Hickey, Programme Director, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity
Oct 31, 2019
This has been a busy month for developments in health policies that could have a positive impact on the lives of children across the UK. Important consultations are in progress focusing on obesity including the House of Commons’ Health Select Committee enquiry; the Government’s Prevention Green Paper; and the National Food Strategy. At the same time we’ve had the Chief Medical Officer’s report and the London Plan Report both shining spotlights on childhood obesity.
We were pleased to contribute to each of these discussions, and excited to share what we’ve learned so far. Using the evidence we gather to inform wider scale action, including through policy, is key to our mission, and being a part of these conversations means our insights can help improve the health of people beyond Lambeth and Southwark. We’ve focused our contributions on key principles we identified when developing our own approach to tackling childhood obesity in our urban area.
We believe that by designing universal interventions, which assume participants have little time, money and headspace to spare, they’re likely to work for everyone. We focus our resources on developing and scaling these solutions within areas of high obesity and lower average incomes.
First, we need to address the incredibly strong link between childhood obesity and low income. We know there is a clear link between an area’s average income and obesity. Five-year-olds from the poorest income groups are twice as likely to be obese compared to their most well-off counterparts. By age 11, they are three times more likely.
An example of our approach in practice is our work with the School Food Matters to create healthier food environments in schools in areas with the highest levels of childhood obesity.
Second, we need to look at the whole-food environment and start where people are, building on existing habits. Children now have easier access to a wider variety of highly palatable, energy dense food than ever before. This food is cheap and widely promoted, both in the media and in stores. Our evidence to date reinforces the need for as broad a focus as possible – beyond chicken shops.
We know that families on low incomes are up against it, so need to find solutions that build on existing habits and journeys rather than demanding large scale changes to people’s behaviours. We are applying this to our work with The Consumer Good Forum in a pioneering pilot to drive changes to store layout and promotions at major food retailers, and incorporating ‘nudging’ techniques to move shoppers to healthier baskets.
Third, we need to think about how we frame this issue and particularly how government can shift the national conversation. Public understanding of childhood obesity is a key barrier to evidence-based solutions.
Our research with the FrameWorks Institute has identified a significant disconnect between what the evidence suggests are drivers and solutions to childhood obesity, and public understanding. Whilst most people agree that childhood obesity is an urgent and important issue, many place responsibility for the problem squarely with parents and weak individual willpower – rather than understanding how environment and context shapes food options. Government can play a leading role in helping shift public perception on this critical issue through proactive application of the recommendations from this framing research.
We were encouraged to see the Chief Medical Officer’s report focus on the need to be bold when it comes to the health inequalities affecting our children. We’re particularly interested to see a clear emphasis on the ‘commercial’ determinants of health, and we know through our projects that many businesses are committed to making healthy changes. We were also pleased to see a recommendation we supported, to restrict the development of new hot food takeaways within 400m of schools, agreed by the planning inspectors in the London Plan Report.
Both papers reinforce that change is possible if we are practical with our solutions, for example, building on the existing shopping and eating habits of young people and families.
It’s incredibly encouraging that our input, alongside others from the sector, into these consultations is supporting changes in policy but there is still much more to do if the government is to reach or exceed its own ambitious goal to half childhood obesity by 2030. We are eager to see further reviews into childhood obesity in coming months and anticipate even greater changes to come.
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Programme Director: Sarah Hickey
15 October, 2020
Sharon Bligh, Healthier Lives Director at The Consumer Goods Forum, shares lessons learnt from our collaboration to test in-store health initiatives.