COVID-19 should be an “urgent wake-up call” on the UK’s failing food system, a group of peers has said.
A wide-ranging report from the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee warned that the government’s current policies, or lack of them, has condemned children to a life of ill-health, cost the NHS billions and damaged the environment.
The report, Hungry for Change: fixing the failures in food, published today (6 July), said there was already “unacceptable inequality” in people’s ability to access healthy food before the crisis, and the pandemic has increased the need for the government to take decisive action.
Last year the Trussell Trust charity, which provides a network of food banks, said there had been a 73% increase in the number of emergency food parcels it delivered over the previous five years. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 the Trust reported an 81% increase in food parcels in the last two weeks of March.
Our current food system, the report found, encouraged consumption of highly processed, less healthy foods by making it cheaper, promoting it and making it easier to buy. Already people in Britain – which has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe – eat more processed foods than those in any other European country.
Committee chair Lord Krebs said: “Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets.
“Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.
“The government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”
The report pointed to evidence that adults and children living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas. This was a contributing factor to the difference in life expectancy of 20 years between the two groups.
While the government has published its guidance on what constitutes a healthy diet, the Eatwell Guide, it has not evaluated properly whether the diet is affordable to all, the report is not alone in finding that it is not.
Food Foundation executive director Anna Taylor said: "This report shows that millions of families can’t eat well unless they have sufficient income and an environment which makes the healthy choice the easiest. People can no longer wait for lengthy government consultations, which languish in Whitehall.
“Every day that passes where the odds are stacked against families securing a healthy diet is a missed opportunity to secure a healthy future for our children.”
“One in five people in Britain live in poverty and this country has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the European Union, accounting for 20 per cent of all severely food insecure people in Europe.”
Peers argued that our food system, being a significant part of the economy, was a potentially powerful lever to make improvements across public health, social equality and the environment. On tackling climate change, the authors argued, farmers must be supported fully and rewarded for environmental outcomes.
The report also turned its attention to post-Brexit transition trade talks, and called on the government to demonstrate how it would keep its commitment to prevent existing environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards from being weakened.
A number of key action points were laid out by the committee, which pointed out that it had been “selective” in those it chose bearing in mind the strained economy due to the pandemic.
The committee called on the government "without delay" to:
• Measure how many people live with food insecurity, and why.
• Understand the cost of a healthy diet and include this in benefits calculations.
• Curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods.
• Reduce sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and calories in processed food, including introducing mandatory requirements if needed.
• Properly fund and monitor food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as Healthy Start and free school meals.
• Establish an independent body to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy and report annually to Parliament on progress.
• Use the Agriculture Bill to encourage production and consumption of healthier food and ensure it delivers the public environmental goods.