Yesterday, I was asked to make a comment on live radio for BBC Merseyside (from 56:30), in response to news reports that the public health minister had announced that it is “easy to identify the poorest people in society because many of them are overweight or obese”. Report here
While there has been a public outcry over some of the statements given in the Telegraph article, when you look at the statistics, it is true that obesity rates in children in the UK are higher in populations showing the greatest rates of deprivation and poverty.
I don’t agree with blaming the victim, but am glad that this problem is being highlighted, as we do need to address the issues of what we call “Modern Malnutrition” and food poverty in the UK. Cheap food is usually energy dense and nutrition poor and obesity rates are rising due to this.
People are struggling; and reports from various food poverty and child welfare organisations over the past few years have shown that food banks are being used, children from low income families are going to school without any breakfast and parents are missing meals in order to make ends meet and be able to feed their kids.
So what’s the problem?
- Is it all about healthy food being more expensive?
- Is it all about poor education?
- Is it the supermarkets’ fault for promoting cheap and nasty food?
Actually , the problem is much more complex than that.
There are a mixture of factors at play including – geography and ability to get to a decent food supply, education, knowledge and beliefs about health, social norms, lack of cooking skills and availability of reasonably priced healthy food.
Working in clinics in the NHS for years, I very quickly learnt to ask people where their nearest supermarket or grocery store was. Usually, the only shop accessible by bus or walking, was a higher priced small store or local convenience store. In a recent Dispatches programme on television, a price check on healthy food was done comparing the price of fruit and vegetables in the large supermarkets with the smaller convenience store of the same name. The price differences were enormous with the same products sometimes being around 50% higher in price in the smaller stores. These kind of barriers contribute to the problem.
But can you eat healthy on a low income?
It is possible to eat healthy on a budget, there is no doubt about that.
Many food retailers have also signed up to the Responsibilty Deal with the government, meaning that they pledge to improve the health of the nation by making healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, more accessible to the public. There are moves being made, but there is a lot more work to be done.
The National Obesity Strategy, released in 2011, focussed very much on local initiatives. I think there needs to be more support for local initiatives in order to try to address the problem of food poverty and modern malnutrition in the UK. Local food co-ops, community food gardens (food baskets), community transport to markets and larger, cheaper stores, working with industry to promote healthy and cheap options for healthy eating and education are all key.
There is a lot of work to be done. I’m glad the problem is being highlighted and it’s up to the government, industry and health bodies to get serious on addressing Modern Malnutrition.
My comments on BBC radio from 56:30 here for a limited time.
I would love your views on how to address this issue.