Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, lifestyle cancers, type 2 diabetes, stroke and kidney disease. Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980, while in the UK the obese proportion of the population rose from 15 percent in 1993 to 26 percent by 2014. More alarmingly, a recent WHO report found a quarter of adolescents in England and Wales eat sweets or chocolates every day and 14 percent have a cola or other sugary drink daily. A foreword to the report warned: “Most young people will not outgrow obesity: about four in every five adolescents who become obese will continue to have weight problems as adults.” When do many unhealthy eating habits begin? As infants, with one in three UK kids leaving primary school overweight or obese.
As early as last August it was clear the government’s commitment to fighting childhood obesity was likely to become a casualty of Brexit. David Cameron was a passionate supporter, but the gutting of his government’s draft Childhood Obesity Strategy when a final diminished document was published in dog days of last summer suggested Theresa May neither had the same interest nor shared a comprehension of the complex issues. The proof of the pudding is in the digestion of the Conservative election manifesto, with its announcement of the intention to scrap universal infant school lunches – a measure proven to boost health and educational outcomes. It’s particularly poignant that it follows hot on the heels of the Trump administration’s stalling of regulations inspired by Michelle Obama to help fight childhood obesity in America, by cutting sodium and increasing whole grains served in school meals.
We know President Trump’s proclivity for junk food, but this is a curious decision from Theresa May for a host of reasons:
* It may hit children from the JAM’s – those “Just About Managing” families the prime minister has stated it’s her priority to help.
* It may hurt children from some of the most deprived families in the country in constituencies the prime minister is hoping to win from Labour.
* It overturns a commitment that featured as a Conservative manifesto pledge as recently as 2015.
* On a personal level, it’s meanness risks unnecessary approbation. Let’s not forget that in 1971 removing free school milk for the over-sevens earned the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher the nickname “Milk Snatcher”. This dogged her throughout her career and even contributed to Oxford University refusing her an honorary degree in 1985.
The decision is even more confusing when considering the rest of this curious pudding mix of a manifesto:
“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.”
One can easily imagine conservative libertarians rather taken aback, yet there is more to come:
* Imposing a tariff cap on energy providers – derided as Marxist when promoted by Ed Miliband at the last general election.
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* Adopting a plan to confront the crisis in social care that was denounced as a “death tax” when opponents suggested it.
* Curbs on executive pay, restraints on foreign takeovers, regulation of the gig economy, workers’ rights and industrial strategy.
Considering such interventionist elements of “Mayism”, it seems even more extraordinary that universal infant school lunches should be singled out for the axe. If intervention is justified and required in any society, surely it must be in the promotion of the longer-term health of our children?
At the time the free infant lunch policy was introduced in 2014, by a conservative-dominated coalition, four in ten children who did not receive free school meals were officially in poverty. These children will suffer again, as it is estimated this will cost working families up to £500 per year per child.
The Tory manifesto makes the point that the party does not believe that “giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money”. It then adds:
“There is now good evidence that school breakfasts are at least as effective in helping children to make progress in school. So under a new Conservative government, schools in England will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school, while children from low-income families will continue to receive free school lunches throughout their years in primary and secondary education.”
Breakfast may be more cost-efficient, and helping children make progress in school is to be admired, but this completely misses the bigger point. In fighting obesity, the country is facing a challenge equal to that of the Brexit negotiations. As recently as 2000 type 2 diabetes was not considered a childhood disease – now its incidence moves ever upwards. While Public Health England tinkers at the edges with sugar and fat reduction in processed foods, unhealthy eating habits formed in childhood are destroying lives. One in three UK kids leaves primary school overweight or obese, so fighting this must be a priority, providing real food at the point when many eating habits are formed.
The Conservatives bravely tried to establish that people who could afford to pay for their social care should do so, with the state recovering the cost from their estates after their death. “Dementia Tax” headlines and election panic, as the conservative lead in the opinion polls was cut in half, put a stop to that, but as a result the problem of funding the rising costs of social care remains unresolved. Yet a policy to help reduce the risk and rise of obesity, one of the biggest contributors to the rise of chronic disease and social care costs, is to be dumped.
Is Lunch Snatcher May doomed to share Mrs Thatcher’s legacy when it comes to infants? Might a “Maggie May” yet emerge, to redeem them both by addressing the nutritional needs of primary school pupils and assisting in their “eatucation”? Just as Brexit is taking the UK back to a pre-1973 world, perhaps it’s also time to look to the past for food guidance? One starting point might even be 1971 and to return to a policy of providing kids with free milk, if only as an alternative to cans of sugar laden caffeine rich energy drinks….
Peter Allen is CEO of No Targets Just Routine, the creators of Just Routine, the real food app designed to help make eating real food just routine. As Managing Director of Lombard Street Research, the internationally acclaimed independent economic forecaster, he worked with its founder Professor Tim Congdon before taking over the running of the company. A longstanding advocate for independent investment research, as Chairman of Euro IRP – The European Association of Independent Research Providers – he helped revolutionise the world of investment research. He plans to do the same in the world of food.