For a moment in time back in April, it seemed as if the Covid-19 pandemic were about to change everything we accept as normal in our society. And yet with the unveiling of the government’s ‘new’ public health strategy to tackle obesity this week, it seems the focus is still very much on individual behaviour and eating habits rather than increasing wellbeing and improving health.
Undoubtedly, obesity is a public health concern; undoubtedly, supermarkets abound with food choices that don’t follow most NHS guidelines for a nutritious diet. Yet the measures that the government is planning to introduce will do nothing to change the two interlinked issues of poverty and time poverty that are often the real cause of obesity. Focusing on better labelling and banning supermarket promotions will do nothing to help the 8.4 million people in food poverty in the UK: many of them in work and many of them reliant on emergency food parcels that can’t meet the nutritious needs of adults, let alone children in the longer term. They are also completely devoid of any joy in food preparation and cooking.
In January 2019, the environmental audit committee published a report highlighting the danger in omitting food insecurity from the government’s anti-obesity strategy. And yet there are no measures to tackle food poverty in this latest public health offensive. According to research by The Food Foundation, in order to meet the recommendations of the Eatwell Guide, a household in the lowest two income deciles in the UK would have to spend around 42% of their after-rent disposable income on food. This is not a problem of lack of information or guidance from health practitioners, but lack of money. In a society where many already cannot afford proper nutrition, shamefully the government is worried that ‘junk’ food is too cheap and not worried that it is all some can afford.
On the other hand, our diets and our relationship to food is not purely an issue of poverty. Even those of us lucky enough to have stable income make food choices dictated by an incredibly unhealthy work culture in the UK. According to the TUC, British workers work the longest weeks in the EU, but our productivity is lagging behind. The average office worker spends a third of their day at work where they don’t perform a single physical activity and they complete tasks that are perfectly doable in shorter working days or a four-day week. They are then forced to work out in a gym because it is the quickest way they can cram energy release and movement into a packed schedule.
Commuting has more or less done away with the idea of a good, non-rushed breakfast. Most people will not be able to afford a sit-down lunch every day of the week, which means they either have to buy a less healthy meal deal option, or batch cook. In shared accommodation – increasingly the reality for many into their 30s – the pressures to cook your meal before quickly vacating the kitchen space for flatmates to use mean batch cooking and meal planning is not only daunting but positively anti-social. Takeaway is an easy option – not because people are lazy but because it gives them an extra hour or so of their day they can ‘reclaim’ from work.
Cooking may be possible on a budget but it becomes a chore when, along with everything else, it is subordinated to work and crammed into our ‘spare’ time. Increasing your activity levels is, again, something that most workers will probably be very happy to do if it didn’t have to come out of their time. While many will offer well-meaning advice on walking or cycling to work, the reality of our built environment is that it’s neither enjoyable nor done to increase our wellbeing but often a money-saving measure. It is also much more difficult for those with caring responsibilities.
For those of us reliant on the welfare system, losing weight is not a priority nearly as important as paying the bills, not getting evicted or eating at least one meal a day. For those of us doing two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet, to clothe and care for children, seeing the calorie count on menus of restaurants that we never visit and cannot afford will make zero difference. And even for those of us who are spared most of the grinding cruelty of poverty (always a couple of pay checks away), work doesn’t pay for a healthy work/life balance, for a meaningful relationship with food, for good access to outdoor space, for the time to enjoy food and movement. None of that will be solved by yet another labelling system.