Sarah Hickey, Programme Director, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Apr 30, 2020
In a situation where people are worried about their ability to find and pay for food, talking about childhood obesity can seem somewhat beside the point. However, we’ve always thought about childhood obesity as an issue that is primarily about access to food; how easy or difficult it is for children to eat the food they need to thrive. COVID-19 requires organisations working in food reform – including ours – to quickly adapt operations to an uncertain and changing context. What remains constant, even more so now, are the risks of a system where there is huge variation in families’ ability to access nutritious food. The goal of breaking the link between income and diet, through fundamental changes in the role that food plays in children’s spaces, feels ever more pressing. The current situation has shone a spotlight on health inequality in our cities and highlighted the fact that it has been largely normalised. There is a risk that this inequality will become even worse as a result of the pandemic, so we feel work such as ours in the childhood obesity programme is more important now than ever.
Our programme is focused on what a ‘whole-systems’ approach to children’s health means in practice within an inner city context – working with schools, supermarkets, fast food outlets, policy-makers and anyone else who plays a part in what ends up on young people’s plates. We aim to use evidence-backed ways to shape people’s food environment to make a nutritious diet easier, rather than harder, than eating unhealthily. For us this is about food in our daily lives better meeting user needs of affordability, convenience and taste while also being healthy. It is about stemming the flood of food options that serve children with excess fat and calories but little other nutritional value, with a detrimental impact on their health.
In responding to COVID-19, we have used this programme scope to direct our resources, as we think we’ll have the most impact on areas where we have expertise, partners and delivery infrastructure to contribute. Within our boroughs emergency food delivery infrastructure is being set up and/or delivered through statutory, commercial and charity partnerships. We don’t want to duplicate or confuse this work – but rather look for where we can increase its impact on families who are eligible for or could benefit from Free School Meals. Our focus is seeing where we can extend the reach of these support services and on making the food as healthy as possible. Second, to make sure we capture the lessons coming out for food systems.
In practice, this means:
Throughout this, our effort is weighted towards the medium-long term rather than urgent need. This is difficult when there is so much immediate need beyond the scope of our activity. However, COVID-19 is exposing just how far the food system is designed and can be redesigned. New private-public partnerships are forming. Traditional ‘eligibility’ criteria for some services are being broadened as the crisis exposes broader needs. The logistics and impact of this work feel so important to capture.
We don’t want to lose the practical insights – from data, organisations and families themselves – that can inform a food system that narrows, rather than widens the gap in children’s access to good food.
And it’s not just the childhood obesity programme looking at structural redesign and long-term reduction in health inequality - next week the Director of our multiple long-term conditions programme shares her thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 and their adapted approach to supporting those most affected.
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.