This week’s long-awaited government response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy proposals has been revealed as a crushing disappointment. A crucial opportunity has been lost, when the government could have shown genuine leadership with white paper proposals to transform our food system.
According to cabinet minister Michael Gove, who commissioned Dimbleby’s review in 2019, the original plan was to ensure a food system that was ‘safe, healthy and affordable’ for all. The document published this week echoes only a few of the proposals made by Dimbleby. We estimate just four of his 14 recommendations have been substantially addressed, with the rest of the response falling far short of the original ambition.
The failure to propose new legislation means there is no real strategy for taking us to a point where everyone in Britain can afford to eat in a way that protects both their health and the planet. This matters now more than ever as the cost of living crisis is forcing families into cheap, obesogenic, high-calorie options, which may be filling but provide little nutrition.
Taxes on salt and sugar, and investment in free school meals and the Healthy Start scheme, were all proposed by Henry Dimbleby, and would at least be concrete steps towards making healthier foods an easy and affordable choice.
Similarly, creating the correct mix of nutritional safety nets with initiatives such as tax, investment, innovation funding and other subsidy incentives for the food industry, are all keys to achieving access to good food for all. Even expanding free school meals to all children living on Universal Credit was omitted. Our Department for Education feels distinctly out of step given that Scotland and Wales are now offering free school meals for all children in primary schools, while 800,000 English children in poverty still miss out.
The response does offer a vague goal to increase the proportion of healthy food sold, but offers no plan of how to do this. It will simply never happen while healthy calories from fruit and vegetables cost three times more than unhealthy calories.
Dimbleby proposed a legal underpinning for long-term change in the food system, a new Bill with statutory targets for reduction in diet-related disease, plus methods of monitoring progress and enforcing implementation of public procurement standards and business reporting. Without any legal force, the commitments that the government’s response strategy does make to infrequent progress reporting and cross-government working are both short term and feeble.
A glimmer of hope lies in the approval of Dimbleby’s recommendation for mandatory reporting by large food companies and fast-food delivery services on sales of unhealthy and healthy food. There are no details for how this should be done, but it is heartening that at least 16 major food companies and a coalition of investors have already voiced their support for such a legal framework.
It is also encouraging the government has committed to a new horticulture strategy for England. We welcome the ambition to increase UK production of fruit and vegetables, though the flimsy commitments for public procurement and maintenance of UK standards in trade agreements risk undermining that goal. Public procurement that favours British farmers and upholds high health and environmental standards would not only show the government is serious about changing its role in the food system, but would also create positive ripple effects into the wider market.
Overall, this government narrative has a few commitments to build on. What’s needed is a political champion who understands both the marvels of our food system and the deep threat that current practices pose to us and our planet. We need someone prepared to draw a line under delay tactics, reviews and shallow commitments and just get on with it.
All eyes will now be on health minister Sajid Javid’s forthcoming Health Disparities white paper, to see if he is brave, bold and ambitious enough to rise to the challenge of providing a system that ensures healthy, affordable food and champions the needs of children.