July 15, 2021, by Lexi Earl

The National Food Strategy: our Director responds

This post is written by Prof David Salt.

We welcome the publication of the National Food Strategy today. Since 2017, the Future Food Beacon has spearheaded transdisciplinary research on food systems, clear in the knowledge that our food systems must change in order to preserve population health and the health of the planet. The current system is not fit for purpose, focused as it is on quantity over nutritional quality, and riven with inequalities. This new strategy will provide a pathway for the transformation of English food systems.

The National Food Strategy is focused on four key areas of change:

  1. Breaking the Junk Food Cycle
  2. Reducing diet-related inequality
  3. Making the best use of the land
  4. Creating a long-term shift in our food culture

Conversations we are having and research we have been doing tie into all four of these areas. The National Food Strategy contains 14 recommendations in order to successfully change the food system, in this blog post I want to highlight some areas where the Future Food Beacon has contributed to the conversation.

A What Works Centre for Food

The National Food Strategy, as part of Recommendation 11 – Invest £1billion in innovation to create a better food system – recommends the creation of two What Works Centres, one focused on farming (already being piloted) and one based on diet. The Future Food Beacon has been instrumental in drawing attention to the need for a food systems innovation hub. This recommendation in the national strategy emphasises the importance of such a space.

A What Works Centre for food will provide various tools to develop, implement and evaluate policies, practices and standards to help shift the UK towards a healthier diet that includes more plant-based foods and fewer animal source foods, and one that is lower in fat, salt and sugar. We must align UK production and imports to this diet in a way that is socially acceptable, economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

A key part of a What Works Centre for food will be its ability to connect thinkers and practitioners in academia, industry, civil society, and government. To this end, we have run two workshops with stakeholders to develop ideas of how a What Works Centre for food will be organised, its remit, and purpose. We look forward to sharing more with you as our thinking on this develops.

Feeding children and young people in schools

Children spend large parts of their days at schools, and consume as much as 50% of their food while there, with many taking up school meals. As part of Recommendation 13 – Strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food – the National Food Strategy recommends government purchases food for schools (and other places like prisons and hospitals) that is healthy and also sustainable. Clearly models for this type of purchasing are needed.

From 2018-2020, our International Visiting Research Fellow was Dr Tereza Campello. Dr Campello was the Minister of Social Development and Fight against Hunger from 2011-2016 in the Brazilian government. She spearheaded the national policy to eradicate extreme poverty (Brasilia sem Miseria), improving the lives of 22 million people. She was also involved in changing public procurement of food for schools in Brazil. Food in public schools in Brazil is free, and 43 million children attend school across the country. Dr Campello worked with federal government to create a system where 30% of food bought for school feeding had to come from small, local farmers. This created a permanent demand for the farmers, and provided schools with fresh fruit, vegetables, rice, beans and chicken so that cooks could create dishes that were seasonal and culturally appropriate for the children.

Such changes are possible within the UK too. Not only will buying from smaller producers provide children with better quality, fresher meals, but the longevity of small producers and farmers is improved by the guarantee of a steady income. We are working with the Nottingham City Council catering team on initiatives to support these types of changes, as well as programmes that can improve food education in local schools, priorities set out in Recommendation 3 – Launch a new ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative for schools.

Dietary inequalities and resilience

We welcome the call to extend free school meals to more children. The pandemic has shown the stark difficulty many households have faced for years in bringing enough food to the table. Young people living in lower income areas are less likely to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to struggle with severe obesity. They are more likely to live in areas termed ‘food deserts’ (places where obtaining healthy foods are more difficult). We have ongoing projects using modelling approaches of individual food purchase and consumption patterns, based on real world food provision networks (retailers and social support) to forecast dynamic changes in food insecurity in the UK. This work is being performed by colleagues from Mathematics, the Business School and N/LAB.

Part of Recommendation 7 – Trial a ‘Community Eatwell’ programme, supporting those on low incomes to improve their diets suggests that funds and facilities are made available to make it easier to eat more healthily and affordably. Suggestions include community kitchens and cafes, amongst others. Research we conducted in collaboration with Nottingham Good Food Partnership and Marsha Smith, and with input from Nottingham City Council, showed how much expertise existed within Nottingham around issues of social eating, food growing and community composting. These groups already exist within communities, but they need to be better supported and funded. These communities are places of resilience and ingenuity.

Local experts and community groups should also be engaged in Recommendation 3 – Launch a new ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative for schools. Too often policymakers regard areas of poverty and low income as being ‘in need of’, without understanding quite how such communities are enriched with knowledge. Local knowledge and skills need to be part of the package for true change to take root.

The role of food companies and manufacturers

While we welcome the call for food companies to publish metrics annually that will include sales of food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt, we are concerned that this is not robust enough to effect positive change within the companies themselves. Though providing information to help consumers make informed choices, on its own this will not be enough. We need firmer action. This afternoon, Boris Johnson has indicated that the government has little appetite to introduce a tax on salt and sugar (Recommendation 1 – Introduce a Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax. Use some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families) and so if change is going to happen in terms of manufacturing, more will need to be done to persuade manufacturers and the food industry that this is the long-term solution.

We do welcome the recommendation to invest in developing new capabilities for research and commercialisation of alternative proteins to help reduce our reliance on meat. Our team of ten researchers in the Future Protein Platform have ongoing research into various alternative proteins including meal worm, microbes, wing bean and Bambara groundnut.

Next week we will be publishing further commentary on the National Food Strategy, alternative proteins, and the food industry.

I look forward to contributing further to plans and projects as the National Food Strategy is taken forward.

Posted in Food Research