Vicki Purewal, Senior Associate, Innovation Unit, and Jessica Attard, Programme Manager, Guys' and St Thomas' Charity
Oct 22, 2018
For some time now, those working on population health have recognised the role that businesses can play in health improvement. As the RSPH gets ready to publish its latest ranking of 'healthy high streets', there is an opportunity to consider the impact of businesses in health and how to tap into the opportunities they offer for improvements, be it through employee wellbeing schemes or through the products and services that they sell to the public.
As well as engaging with businesses on a national scale, local opportunities are key too.
In Lambeth and Southwark, we’re increasingly seeing the development of ‘food swamps’: high streets, usually in low income areas, which have a high density of fast food outlets and unhealthy food offering.
Through our own research, we know environments have a big impact on childhood obesity and wanted to better understand how businesses could be part of the solution to addressing the high rates of overweight and obesity we see, particularly in densely populated and disadvantaged areas. Over the last year, we’ve been working in partnership with others through the Healthy High Streets Challenge.
Together, we set out to test whether using a challenge prize approach could help involve businesses in creating healthier environments on the high street. We chose three places – Haringey, Lambeth and Southwark – and went out, met with the local community and businesses and asked for ideas that could make a difference, be possible, long-lasting and that could be replicated in other places. The best ideas were selected by experts and got a small financial award to help test them on the high street.
In Southwark, we focused on Walworth Road – an area with a high level of childhood obesity and families on low incomes - as well as East Street - both areas with high levels of chilhood obesity and families on low incomes. Here we found an abundance of local people with good ideas and fledgling enterprises with a passion for supporting local children to be healthy. Exceptionally, our panel of judges decided that five local entrepreneurs should be supported as a group. With Innovation Unit, we created a flexible six-month incubator programme to help them flesh out their early-stage ideas.
Through our Southwark incubator, we backed initiatives including healthy eating programmes and cooking clubs, making healthier food available to families on a housing estate and in the local market, as well as a recipe exchange group to bring isolated parents together.
Out of the five ideas, two have already set up trials and the other three are close to testing. Our incubator has given our local entrepreneurs more confidence when pitching their idea, help them develop skills to evaluate their initiatives and grew their local networks.
Although still in their early stages, the projects are already making a difference in their local community. For example, at the start of the Eat fit, Drink fit, Be fit healthy eating programme nearly a third of the young people attending did not eat any fruit or veg at the start. The programme got them discovering new flavours and eventually making their own smoothies and wraps, and the organisation is now working with the Southwark Youth Offending Service on a longer trial.
The experiences with our local entrepreneurs in Southwark, Lambeth and Haringey have opened up our eyes to how to engage with local businesses, what really works for them and the important role that local people and entrepreneurs can play in improving the health of their communities.
Although a short, experimental programme, we saw that small changes to menus could persuade people to go for healthier options.
We found that there are people in and around London’s high streets with relevant ideas for helping others keep healthier and that young people are keen to be involved and can influence retailers.
We’ve pulled key lessons into a short report so that health innovators, local authorities, high street businesses and funders elsewhere can learn from our challenge approach. The learning from our Healthy High Streets Challenge has spurred on new ideas at the Charity. We’ll continue to work with local people, entrepreneurs and established businesses, harnessing them as the critical local asset they are to improve health.
Go to our Healthy High Streets Challenge report.