The government should subsidise vegetables and require all public sector food to meet dietary guidelines in order to tackle obesity.
The recommendations were made in a new report from cross-party think tank Demos which said too many people in the UK face significant barriers to eating a healthy diet. It called on the government to reorient the market towards selling more nutritious foods by finding a “healthy middle ground” between telling people what to eat and relying on market fixes.
The report, which also explored public attitudes towards healthy eating, found greater support for policies that help people eat more healthily rather than those that impose restrictions on what foods can be sold. Almost three quarters (71%) of people surveyed as part of the report would support government subsidies that make healthy foods cheaper compared with almost half (47%) who would support additional taxes on unhealthy foods.
Nonetheless, there remained considerable support for restrictive policies with over half (55%) of people saying the government should limit the number of fast-food restaurants and over two thirds (65%) supporting a ban on unhealthy foods in schools. More than four in ten (45%) would support standardised packaging on unhealthy foods, like those approaches taken on cigarette packaging.
The survey found that stress is the most significant barrier to people eating healthy food with cost and availability also scoring highly.
Among a range of recommendations, Demos called for the Cabinet Office to create new guidance and requirements for contracting authorities responsible for procuring food and catering services to ensure that all food provided in public sector organisations, including schools and hospitals, is compliant with the NHS Eatwell Guide. It said the guidance should also include advice on how to implement “should cost” models to catering contracts so that providers have the financial means to provide healthy foods to the public sector.
It also called on the government to subsidise healthy foods that are already low in price, such as tins of tomatoes, carrots and frozen vegetables, to make healthy options much cheaper.
Demos said there should be a greater focus on innovation and recommended the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in partnership with UK Research and Innovation, launch a new food and agriculture sector deal. This could include a challenge fund for researchers, universities and SME food producers to conduct research and development on how to reformulate foods.
“Boris Johnson’s strategy to crackdown on obesity is a welcome step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough in tackling root causes of obesity – many of which lie in our food sector, rather than with retailers. Our research shows there is an opportunity for the government to be even bolder, and pioneers for a new era of food innovation,” said Rose Lasko-Skinner, researcher at Demos and the report’s author.