Charlie Hirst discusses why it is vital that the Government develops a nutrition policy that targets the most vulnerable in society.
If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that Boris Johnson operates almost entirely in pseudo-Churchillian war metaphors. Thus, it was no surprise to see him ‘declare war’ on obesity in response to coronavirus. Disappointingly, it was Matt Hancock, rather than de facto Health Secretary, Marcus Rashford, that announced the government’s attack plan by revealing the new Obesity Strategy to the nation.
As a qualified fitness instructor, I was hoping we would see transformative policies that got to the root cause of malnutrition and obesity, particularly amongst those in deprived communities. Instead, we were given a set of punitive measures on junk food advertising and removing discounts on foods deemed unhealthy. Government after government has shirked the responsibility of tackling obesity and healthy eating in this country and this strategy (presumably described as ‘world-beating’), was yet another missed opportunity.
The obesity problem is multifarious and like almost all public health crises is borne of a combination of wider social determinants like education, social contagion and the built environment. Obesity is, for some, a choice but for many it is an economic imposition. This is an undeniable fact - those living in the most deprived areas of the UK are almost twice as likely to be obese as those living in the least. Analysis by the Food Foundation found that the amount spent on food by over half of the households in the country would not cover the cost of the government’s recommended weekly diet, the Eatwell Plate.
So given the nebulous nature of the problem, what can be done to solve it? For this, we should look to a wartime innovation (yes, Boris) implemented by our transatlantic friends. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps, has been omnipresent in the USA since 1939. SNAP provides coupons with a 1:1 currency ratio to low-income Americans, exclusively for the purchase of food. Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration, SNAP continues to provide a crucial safety net to more than 40 million people each year. It is difficult to overstate the health impacts of SNAP benefits - those receiving them were 16% less likely to be obese, 10% more likely to report being in ‘very good health’ and 18% more likely to complete their education. If creating positive social impact isn’t your thing, it also returns 179% on the dollar in GDP.
SNAP is clearly a great policy. But we can take it one step further. One of the few winners of the pandemic has been the recipe box sector, with popular brands like Mindful Chef seeing sales increases of over 400%. These companies supply boxes of healthy ingredients, complete with basic instructions, straight to your door. My proposal is simple - reproduce this in a publicly run scheme.
Existing government infrastructure could be utilised to provide subsidised recipe boxes to low-income families, tailored to the number of people in their household and their respective nutritional needs. The boxes could provide a mix of easy to prepare meals and microwavable pouches of nutritious foods like pulses and grains. If we agree that the core, contributing factors to obesity in deprived areas are education, access and cost, a recipe box scheme of this nature would ameliorate all three. By including information on healthy diets alongside the food itself, the initiative would serve to both educate and nourish its users, all for an affordable price. SNAP exists as a successful public-private partnership and there is no reason a government operated recipe box scheme could not emulate this model with the existing players in the sector.
I care deeply about social justice and the health of the nation. Crucially, I am tired of vulnerable people in society being castigated for health outcomes that are, at the very least, affected by circumstances beyond their control. Subsidised recipe boxes would not be a panacea. As always, there is much more work to do. However, my hope is that this can be the start of a conversation that doesn’t end with needing a 21 year old footballer to fight for our children’s nutritional battles.
This article was shortlisted as one of twelve finalist pieces in the Young Fabians Political Writing Competition 2020.
Charlie Hirst is a public sector strategy consultant and has lectured as a guest at the University of Manchester. He writes in a personal capacity.
 Snowdon, Christopher. 2020. The Spectator.
 "Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults And Children To Live Healthier Lives". 2020. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tackling-obesity-government-strategy/tackling-obesity-empowering-adults-and-children-to-live-healthier-lives.
 Scott, Courtney, Jennifer Sutherland, and Anna Taylor. 2018. Foodfoundation.Org.Uk. https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Affordability-of-the-Eatwell-Guide_Final_Web-Version.pdf.
 "Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food On The Table". 2019. Center On Budget And Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/chart-book-snap-helps-struggling-families-put-food-on-the-table.
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"Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food On The Table". 2019. Center On Budget And Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/chart-book-snap-helps-struggling-families-put-food-on-the-table.
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 "Recipe Box Sales Surge Under Lockdown". 2020. Ft.Com. https://www.ft.com/content/90b7e7a6-f22d-44f1-93da-eeaad80fc70c.