London Weighs in with Renewed Action on Child Obesity
I became a food entrepreneur in my mid-thirties. The lightbulb moment, that trigger to do it, happened as I watched my daughter Ella grow up happily, ‘winning’ at her all-important journey towards turning two. She had every opportunity to be healthy, including nutritious food, a comfortable home and a supportive family. But I was acutely aware that not every child has the same opportunity at the start of their life. It hit me hard that what might be read as privileged should by right be universal after reading a speech by one of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, who said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. With nearly 40 per cent of London’s children being overweight or obese and with the highest rates so obviously occurring in the most disadvantaged areas, it is clear that we have lost our soul.
Last year I had another lightbulb moment, another trigger to do something new, when I saw that the Mayor of London was looking for a chair for an new cross-sector London Child Obesity Taskforce. I successfully applied, focusing on the truth in the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. A healthy one, at least. It takes families, communities, schools, retailers, the state and more" all thinking and acting in our children’s best interests.
The London Child Obesity Taskforce has the ambitious aim of ensuring that every child in our city has the chance to have a healthy diet and active lifestyle. We want to reduce childhood obesity rates drastically, as well as the gap in child obesity rates between the richest and poorest communities in the capital. Our Taskforce has this ethos and a ‘whole system’ approach at its heart, and it’s not alone. Thankfully there is now much work that’s bubbling up in the capital suggesting that many others are alive to this notion too.
New momentum in efforts to curb child obesity
An entrepreneur has to be optimistic, as do activists" each has to ‘believe’ better is possible, and with the current momentum of activity around this approach to children’s health, I am truly optimistic.
The start of this year has seen a number of organisations announcing promising collaborations which suggest that this true ‘whole system’ approach to keeping our children healthy " one where everybody chips in" is not as far away as we might have thought.
First up is a daring new approach " a national advertising campaign and a partnership between ITV and Veg Power to reach millions with ads that promote vegetables and fruit in fun new ways. This is vital because 80 per cent of primary school kids still aren’t eating enough vegetables. We’re yet to see if Eat them to defeat them will work, but the fact that we’re trying is an important landmark in itself.
Quickly following is the announcement by international consortium The Consumer Goods Forum that retailers from Tesco to Sainsbury's, and food and drink manufacturers from Danone to Nestlé, are joining forces to help consumers be healthier. The first collaboration of its kind in the UK, they are going to be working together to move shoppers towards a healthier basket. Under the shared banner ‘One for Good’, which has already been used successfully in the US and other countries, they’ll use a mix of activities including promotions on fruit and veg and ‘nudges’" subtle encouragements towards the healthier option.
Last but not least, Fizz Free February has been going from strength to strength since Southwark Council launched it last year. I’ve written about the success of this idea, which is now adopted as a key initiative in the calendar of many local authorities and getting many more families and children reducing their sugar intake by cutting off fizzy drinks.
London at the heart of efforts
What’s particularly exciting about these initiatives is that they’re happening right on our doorstep" they are London success stories. Southwark pioneered Fizz Free February. The first shops to adopt ‘One for Good’ in 2019 will be in south London, Lambeth and Southwark to be precise. Meanwhile, Veg Power is complementing its ads with local activity in schools in Lambeth, to understand the difference it makes to layer local ‘bolsters’ on top of the national campaign.
This creates a unique opportunity to test and learn something in a real place with a mix of residents in the complex setting that is inner-city London: people juggling the demands of work and home life, with varying access to healthy food options on their high streets, and often living on extremely different incomes. In my role as chair of the Taskforce, I will be building on the successful foundations laid by these approaches.
Getting closer to a whole system approach
The idea of ‘whole system’ solutions to complex issues such as child obesity is not new. Co-ordinated actions in Amsterdam and research like Bite Size, from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, are examples that remind us of the evidence we already have on how crucial it is to tackle the issue from many angles.
Initiatives like Veg Power and The Consumer Goods Forum’s collaboration shine a light on an important aspect of our capital: London is a forward-thinking place, one where bold approaches can flourish and where people from different walks of life can come together to create change.
Our Taskforce’s bold vision is to unleash a transformation in London so that every child has every chance to have a healthy diet and live an active life. We are currently developing and co-ordinating actions that will deliver a radical difference to how we live in the city, and the options our children have for being healthy. Our aim is to halve the percentage of London’s children who are overweight at the start of primary school and obese when they leave at the age of 11, and to reduce the gap in childhood obesity rates between the richest and poorest areas of the city by 2030. To get there, we need to fundamentally shift our norms, values and attitudes towards diet, activity and weight. In the spring, we will announce our action plan in the Spring, which will set out how we will achieve our ambitions.
The momentum we’re seeing today, with media companies, non-profit-making organisations, food retailers and many others working together, supports my optimism. This could be the year when we shift the gear towards that 2030 vision, but many more need to join in.
Whether you are a public health professional, a school teacher, an urban planner or a fellow food entrepreneur, you have a part to play. If you’re inspired by the work happening in Lambeth and Southwark and have ideas to tackle local child obesity, I encourage you to connect with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. If you’d like to be involved in the work of the Taskforce, get in touch with us.