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Invest in school chefs to help save NHS, say experts

The UK government should tackle obesity by expanding the sugar tax, taxing salt, implementing a pre-watershed ban on junk food advertising and investing in school kitchens and chefs.

The call for stronger intervention on diets came from The Times Health Commission which has set out a ten-point plan to save the National Health Service as part of an investigation into the crisis facing the health and social care system in England.

Established in January 2023, the commission has been supported by a group of expert commissioners from the worlds of medicine, business, policy, science, food and sport – including national food strategy author Henry Dimbleby – and has sought to learn the lessons from the best examples at home and abroad “in a dispassionate, clear-sighted, non-ideological fashion”.

In a wide-ranging final report, the commission concluded that “unhealthy lifestyles are costing lives, costing the NHS billions and costing companies a fortune in lost productivity”, adding that “better diet, an end to smoking and more exercise can all be encouraged if we lose our aversion to the ‘nanny state’”.

Commissioners concluded that “transformative change” is essential to tackle obesity, including a concerted effort by government, business, civil society and individuals to break the “junk food cycle”, described by Dimbleby in his own food strategy.

The commission proposed that the soft drinks industry levy should be expanded to other sugary drinks and products and also to highly salted foods. It cited evidence showing that Britons eat 40% more salt than the recommended 6g per day and a high intake of salt is associated with a 23% increase in the risk of stroke and a 14% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The purpose of the policy would be to encourage manufacturers to change their recipes with the money raised used to expand free school meals to all children whose families are on universal credit.

The commission also called for more investment in school kitchens and chefs, with food and nutrition promoted in the classroom and Ofsted responsible for monitoring whether schools are meeting food standards. It said there should also be a legal requirement on all public sector bodies to serve healthy food to promote the long-term health of the nation.

Tougher action is also called for on the promotion and marketing of unhealthy food. The commission said the pre-watershed ban on television advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt must be introduced as soon as possible, having been subject to delay, while the government should look at outlawing packaging for unhealthy food that aims to appeal to children, for example through the use of cartoon characters.

Planning laws should be reformed to empower local authorities to reduce the prevalence of unhealthy food outlets such as chicken shops and other takeaways, particularly around schools, and to minimise adverts for unhealthy products.

Writing in The Times, commission chairwoman and columnist Rachel Sylvester said the recommendations contained in the final report were “pragmatic, practical, deliverable and could be taken up by any political party or government, present or future”.

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