No appetite for change? A look at food and obesity policy
Our expert research team has taken a look at the key issues on food and obesity policy and what UK people really think about them. Managing Consultant, and research specialist, Tom Welborn explains the results and why politicians shouldn't fear interventionism on food and obesity policy.
This month, children returning to school across London will universally receive a free school meal for the first time. The initiative comes off the back of Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals during COVID. Both policy and campaign are aimed, primarily, at reducing the financial burden on struggling parents and ensuring that the least well-off children have at least one hot meal per day.
The extension to universal school meals in London will go some way to removing the stigma attached to receiving them and create a healthier relationship between school aged students and food. This latter point has the potential to make a lasting impact on public health and government finances. This kind of interventionist policy has proven politically contentious, but our polling shows that savvy politicians would do well to support this and other school level public health interventions.
It is true that, broadly, Brits do not like to be told what to eat. In his book Ravenous Henry Dimbleby recalls countless meetings with the food lobby who push government policy toward labelling and education rather than any concrete actions. Indeed, our polling suggests that, in this area at least, the food lobby is absolutely right: support for clearer labelling is overwhelming as is the rejection of banning buy-one-get-one-free offers (BOGOFs).
However, this point (no doubt intentionally) lacks nuance. Wanting more labelling does not equate to rejecting intervention and wanting to keep deals that makes food more affordable for the poorest, likewise does not mean that people do not want the government to act on public health.
The right criteria to meet for effective and deliverable policies...
Time and again Stonehaven insights have identified the same criteria for designing policies that are both effective and popular. Policies that ask people to make personal sacrifices are always difficult to implement, and they are almost impossible during an ongoing cost of living crisis. Policy makers benefit from creating policies that place the burden of change on someone other than the voter and if at all possible, benefit the voter.
Voters overwhelmingly support the government compelling businesses to make healthier food. It turns out they are happy for the government to have a say in what we eat, so long as the policy does not expect anything of them.
Voters want Government to act on food in schools
Schools represent another area that voters expect the government to intervene and to set up their children for the future.
They overwhelmingly want to see higher levels of food education. 64% of people think children should know how to cook at least 10 recipes before leaving school (compared to 12% who do not) and 74% of people want to see an increase the availability of afterschool clubs (compared to 6%), which extend the school experience and can be used to promote public health.
Furthermore, in the school context intervention, wins over personal freedoms. Banning junk food in schools is comprehensively supported. Outside of this context, when asked about support for banning junk food purchased for under 16’s, support is mixed with roughly equal numbers supporting (37%) and opposing (36%).
Critics will no doubt say that policies that are effectively giveaways will, of course, be popular and question how to fund them. Indeed, many will baulk at the £135m price tag for the free school meal policy in London, and argue it is cost prohibitive to roll this out across the country. However, given the cost of £6.5 billion to the NHS every year for obesity related conditions, the current policy would only have to lead a <0.02% reduction in obesity in a single year to be cost neutral.
Given the enormous potential impact and the support of the right kind of policies politicians should be bolder in intervening in the food and obesity spaces.
Despite what we may think, there is an appetite for intervention after all.