>>Can retailers help to improve nutrition? David Piachaud, Professor of Social Policy, LSE

Healthy eating is now a national issue. With 15% of children not just overweight but clinically obese, concern about child nutrition is rapidly rising. A Children’s Food Bill seeking to control marketing is before Parliament. Unhealthy foods are to be banned from schools.

The concern is not just with children. Inequalities in health are also rising and poor nutrition is a major factor in, for example, life expectancy being 10 years less in Glasgow than in Kensington and Chelsea.

Whether poor nutrition is due to poverty, ignorance or greed, there is no sign that it is decreasing. Even if school meals are improved, children still receive or purchase more than three quarters of their food and drink outside school.

The man who has focused most attention on child nutrition for decades is Jamie Oliver with his School Dinners TV series.

He found that it was not enough to design more nutritious school meals. It was also necessary to re-train cooks and re-educate children about eating more healthily. Few who saw it will forget chicken beaks and claws being crunched up to demonstrate what went into a chicken nugget.

Who will emulate his campaigning work for diets outside school that are seriously unhealthy? At present the answer is - no one. Is it too much to hope that supermarkets will respond to this challenge and dispel the idea that their only concern is profit, selling anything regardless of what it does to their customers’ health?

Many of the poorest families on the worst housing estates who have terrible diets rely on corner shops that have foods with a very limited range, poor quality, virtually no fresh fruit or vegetables, and high prices. What they have in abundance is confectionery, fizzy drinks, cigarettes and alcohol.

Various attempts have been made to improve food supply on a community basis, for example by food co-operatives. These rarely
work or endure. The primary reasons are that those involved know little about food retailing and they rely on the energy and goodwill of one or two people. Something different is needed if the problem is to be seriously addressed.

Imagine if each of the big five supermarkets tried setting up an experimental community healthy-eating store in an area such as a peripheral housing estate where the only on-site retailing now is a traditional corner store. This could attempt to supply good food at standard supermarket prices and make it commercially viable.

This is no mean challenge. It needs to achieve a food revolution, changing tastes and shifting people away from junk food towards nutritious, manageable, low-cost diets. The usual warnings about excess salt and sugar are not enough to achieve this.

Such an effort would need a crusading nutritionist attached to the store, as well as demonstrations, door-to-door advertising and education, special offers, menus of the week, in-store advice and inspiration, and meal packs including all the required ingredients and instructions for an appetising meal. There should also be a positive environment with uplifting décor, lighting and music - a far cry from the hopelessness of many run-down estates. All these could encourage and reinforce a switch to healthy eating.

Supermarket trading relies for low prices on low unit costs resulting from high turnover. To achieve low unit costs with low turnover clearly requires innovation. This might involve limiting the range of goods on offer, for example stocking only basic items plus ingredients for certain specified recipes of the week, limiting hours of opening to keep down staff costs and operating in tandem with a full-size store.

Maybe such an experiment would succeed and could be rolled out more widely. Success would mean committed and healthier customers; helping your customers to live longer is surely good business - and good publicity.