It's time to reframe healthy food as a public good

Greater Lincolnshire Food Partnership Coordinator Laura Stratford shares her thoughts on why it's time to reframe healthy eating. 

Written by Laura Stratford

Originally written by Laura Stratford on LinkedIn

We were waiting anxiously in hospital with our 6 year old. He was in considerable pain, and not allowed to eat or drink while he awaited an emergency operation to have his appendix out.

Grateful to be offered a bed in the children’s ward, we browsed the wall posters as we waited, that explained healthy diets in bold colours - the stuff we are all taught at school and are reminded of regularly through the media.

When Small Son finally went into surgery that evening, we suddenly realised how ravenously hungry we were, and went in search of a decent meal. We don’t have any allergies or dietary needs to complicate our search - just normal human bodies that need nourishment every day!

As we walked through the labyrinth of corridors, we passed vending machines that dispensed snack bars, crisps and pop. Some of them were chilled machines and also contained white bread sandwiches containing variations of mayonnaise-based fillings.

A branded sign pointing to the hospital eatery assured us that coca-cola was part of a balanced diet. Both cafes had stopped serving cooked or fresh food, although crisps and snacks were still available. Eventually we came to the hospital shop where several aisles of plastic-wrapped, ultra-processed snacks were for sale.

After considerable searching, we found the first vegetable of the day: a salad in the shop fridge. It was mostly lettuce and grated carrot. It looked wet, tired and unappetising, even (especially!) to people who like salad and raw vegetables. It seemed to epitomise the misery of being on a calorie-controlled diet. We were not tempted to buy it.

I thought wryly of the poster in the children’s ward. In a hospital there is no shortage of awareness of what constitutes healthy food.

The longer I work in food partnership, becoming increasingly aware of the diet-related health and obesity crisis that we are walking into, the more I feel strongly that it is not education the public lacks, but the availability of delicious, nourishing food (and in many cases, an adequate income to afford it).

But decisions - even in hospitals! - are driven by profit-making on the back of the natural human propensity towards foods high in salt, sugar, and fat.

It’s time, then, to reframe healthy food as a public good. As we move away from the old agricultural Basic Payments Scheme (where public subsidies are paid to farmers and landowners according to area of land) and we move towards the principle of public money for public goods, the opportunities are abundant.

Limiting junk food advertising and availability in public places; using public food procurement to support our farmers to produce healthy, sustainable food; and increasing eligibility and auto-enrolment to Healthy Start and Free School Meal schemes are obvious places to start.

What we need is not more educational posters, but to normalise good food in public life.

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