A (sizeable) step in the right direction

The Childhood Obesity Plan could have gone further but it’s much better than the Responsibility Deal, says Bidvest Foodservice’s David Jones.

By 2035 almost three in four adults will be overweight or obese, with levels in the UK more than trebling in the past 30 years. Over the past decade the government has attempted to identify and tackle

the obesity crisis, with schemes such as Change4Life and the Responsibility Deal. The Childhood Obesity Plan is the most recent milestone and aims to significantly reduce the rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years, with a strong focus on sugar.

The plan takes a more assertive approach than the Public Health Responsibility Deal by using scientific research to address the root causes of childhood obesity. The deal was criticised for not driving change, despite a number of businesses across the industry pledging to make positive steps to address the areas highlighted. At Bidvest Foodservice, for example, we pledged and have made positive steps relating to alcohol labelling, salt reduction and the use of artificial trans fats, with all of our own-brand products now free from hydrogenated vegetable oils. In addition, we’ve focused on incorporating and promoting more products with fruit and vegetables, supporting staff with chronic health conditions, and running active travel-to- work schemes across the business.

Since then, the move to fight obesity and appreciation of how acute the problem is becoming for children have caused government thinking to evolve. The Responsibility Deal must be viewed as a learning curve. It served a purpose at the time and acted as a sounding board that helped to shape the new Childhood Obesity Plan. Despite the progress made, it fell short through its disparity and lack of focus, failing to engage the whole industry and challenge businesses to take their pledges forward – instead many companies went for the easy wins. It also didn’t concentrate on childhood obesity, nor the role of sugar.

Learning from this, the Childhood Obesity Plan, which is committed to addressing specific areas within its 13 key actions, is a more focused approach with the potential to gain real momentum, facilitate change and alter attitudes. The plan is a step in the right direction, with some important measures which need to be welcomed – such as the soft drinks levy and the 20% reduction of sugar in food and drink products, as well as supporting innovations in science and technology to help businesses make their products healthier.

However, it could have gone further. One in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, demonstrating that there is significant work to do on education in schools for both pupils and parents, as well as how we address malnutrition and access to healthy food in the wider community. Yes, the sugar tax will fund healthy breakfast clubs and initiatives in schools, but what about when the children aren’t in school? This isn’t just a term-time problem and eating habits outside the classroom also need to be addressed.

The obesity problem has taken over 30 years to get to this point, so it’s not going to be resolved quickly. Within the foodservice sector, businesses need to work together to share best practice and make changes in order to tackle the causes head on. For targets to be met, we need firm direction from the government and its new policy. In particular we need to hold the government accountable for the promises it has made, such as the six-monthly updates, which I hope will ensure traction and help to get the whole food and drink industry interested and making changes.

Awareness of the obesity issue is at an all-time high and through the Childhood Obesity Plan the stakes have been raised. This is the next step, and although it’s in the early stages it is starting to attain high levels of engagement and debate from individual companies, industry associations and campaign groups. In November this year, for example, we held the first ever summit from our sustainability initiative plate2planet, titled plate2planet Live, which included a heated panel debate on the government’s strategy to tackle obesity and the role of sugar within this.

This is just the first of many, and there will be significant and heated discussions of what the food and drink industry can do to make substantial progress in the pursuit of a healthier nation. A number of manufacturers are currently meeting Public Health England, for example, to discuss sugar levels and how to reduce these. The foodservice sector needs to work together and identify which of the key actions cited in the plan it can collaborate on to play its role in meeting the new targets.”

David Jones is director of technical services at Bidvest Foodservice.

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