Recent publication of the second part of restaurateur Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was met in the media with accusations of ‘nanny-state meddling’.
Headlines highlighted that were the recommendations to levy a tax on sugar- and salt-rich foods to reach the statute books, they could cost each person in this country an extra £60 a year on their shopping bill.
While groups lobbying for better diets welcomed this fiscal route to tax less healthy foods (along with the recommendation to allow GPs to spend the spoils on prescribing fruit, vegetables and cookery lessons to patients), the food industry declared fairly unilateral opposition.
So far, so inevitable. A new report but the same old impasse. While the government mulls over the strategy’s demands, the food industry will be lobbying hard to ensure few, if any, recommendations see the light of day.
Which made us think. While these groups with such divergent ambitions lock horns, perhaps we should be concentrating our energies on a section of the strategy that could be more powerful in its ability to elicit changes of behaviour in the next generation than hiking the price of sugar-swamped breakfast cereals.
The section in question talks about food within the context of sustainability and is, in our view, its trump card. One of Dimbleby’s recommendations is an ambition to cut meat consumption by 30%, as an essential step, he says, to help meet climate change targets.
Another is to cut food waste by making it a legal responsibility for food businesses with more than 250 employees to publish food waste figures. This could, he hopes, help cut the 9.5 million tonnes of food waste Britain produces each year. As the strategy’s author observes: “If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US.”
It’s the opportunity we need and have been waiting for as educators and caterers to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in
We regularly sit with, listen to, discuss and act on the impassioned pleas from pupils on school food councils from all walks of life, in all kinds of schools, countrywide. These, we know, are the ideas that set such pupils’ imaginations on fire, that make them want to change what is on their school menu, how they lead their lives and what they ask their parents to buy.
This kind of messaging, which looks to change our food system for the sake of the planet, is knocking at a largely open door of a generation of young people who are invested in creating a more sustainable future.
If they have a desire to reduce their meat intake, they will, in our experience, by default want to know what they replace it with, where this replacement will come from, what it will give them nutritionally, where they can buy the ingredients and how to cook them.
It’s a wonderfully virtuous circle and the opportunity we need and have been waiting for as educators and caterers to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. Stuck in with providing as much material and practical support as possible to build theoretical knowledge of how eating well is good for the planet and good for them.
If children understand that buying a locally produced apple saves packaging and transport costs compared with a chocolate bar, then their choice to opt for the apple comes from a perspective of sustainability and that will, by default, cut sugar. If they understand beans on toast reduces carbon dioxide emissions compared with a burger and fries and choose the former, they will reduce their salt without having given it a second thought. And we remove the need for further negative messaging that history shows us simply does not work.
This is the generation who will become the future shareholders and bosses of food businesses, the new food scientists, the new development chefs and the new parents. The generation who, by voting with their shopping choices, could force permanent change in the food industry to improve the wider environment and indeed their health, wherever the latest National Food Strategy recommendations lay their head.