Tins of food sit on shelves in a food bacnk

Public wants to protect food standards post-COVID

Nanny-state label strongly rejected with support shown for free school meals for all.
18 March 2021 , Katie Coyne

Government intervention into the food we eat is not viewed as “nanny state”, according to research backed by the Food Standards Agency that found the public actually wants more of it.

Some 71% thought the government should be doing “a great deal” or a “fair amount” to encourage people to eat healthily. And a majority (61%) felt the pandemic increased that need for governments to act.

On food quality standards, 78% want the UK to maintain food standards regardless of expense and trade – and in fact said that high standards were “non-negotiable” in future trade deals. And if cheaper foods meant lower safety standards, those surveyed thought people on low incomes ought to be protected.

Just over half (51%) supported free school meals for all children, because this would prevent poor students from being stigmatised. A huge majority (69%) supported children getting free school meals during the holidays in the pandemic, with 59% in support of this after the pandemic.

Some 89% agreed that every child had a right to a healthy meal at least once a day.

However, the Food in a Pandemic report, commissioned to review the way the crisis has changed our behaviour and attitudes towards food, found an unprecedented rise in food insecurity – including physical and financial barriers to access.

This is backed by Food Foundation data that found 14% of households – 4m people, including 2.3m children – experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in the six months following the March 2020 lockdown. This compared to 11.5% before this period.

Strong support was found for preventative action against food insecurity, such as ensuring well paid jobs are available to all. And around two-thirds (63%) agreed with the statement that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure no one goes hungry.

The report is part of the 'Renew Normal: the People’s Commission on life after COVID-19' project about building back after the pandemic, which is conducting a whole series of reports into this field. The Commission is backed by a range of organisations and individuals including Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis, and the New Local Government Network.

The Food in a Pandemic report was carried out by Demos and supported by the FSA.

Rose Lasko-Skinner and James Sweetland, authors of the report, concluded the pandemic may have “given birth to a new type of consumer altogether” that “cooks more, eats more at home” and is “more conscious of where their food comes from”.

However, they added: “We have also become more aware of the challenges in our food system, witnessing food shortages for the first time in decades and unprecedented levels of food insecurity. Many of us have had first-hand experiences of these challenges or been involved with supporting others through them.”

On food standards they said: “We have heard clearly that people want high food standards in the UK and are keen to protect them, even willing to forgo new trade deals if international partners demand that we lower them.

“In addition, we found a far more nuanced opinion among the British public towards food supply and provenance. In particular, consumers are more pragmatic than dogmatic about where their food comes from. We have also seen public preferences for further government involvement, in shaping a healthier, more accessible food system.”

They also concluded there was a clear majority in favour of further action to support families into adopting healthier diets, as well as strong support for the right to healthy, good quality food.

Finally, they warned: “Going forward, it might be difficult for policy makers to strike a balance between the majority who want to see more direct support and the minority, who clearly do not.”

A range of qualitative and quantitative techniques were employed in November 2020 to gather the data including a series of online workshops with 30 participants; a nationally representative poll of 10,069 UK adults; an open access survey with 911 people; and a nationally representative Polis (an artificial intelligence-powered system used for gathering and analysing data) with 1,006 UK adults.

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