The government has published Chapter 2 of its Childhood obesity: a plan for action report, setting out plans to halve childhood obesity by 2030. But is this goal achievable, asks Morag Wilson
When the Department for Education (DfE) published ‘Childhood obesity: a plan for action’ two years ago it went down like a lead balloon. Chapter 2 of the action plan, surely, would have more tangible, well, actions, in it?
It certainly has intended actions, and it even has a clear goal to halve childhood obesity by 2030. However, just a few weeks after its publication, National Child Measurement Programme figures were published, which reveal that obesity among Year 6 children has reached a record high. Today, 4.07% of all children aged 10 and 11 years old are classified as obese, a rise from 3.17% a decade ago (the statistics are worse for boys, at 4.78%, compared to 3.33% for girls). This problem is going to get far worse before it gets better.
When we address the issue of childhood obesity, it’s important to bear a couple of things in mind. That childhood obesity rates are highest in more deprived areas – low income households are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in higher income households – and children from ethnic minority families are also more likely to be obese. These inequality gaps are increasing.
The biggest action in the original plan was the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, or the Sugar Tax. Funds from the levy go towards breakfast clubs and physical activity programmes in schools. The plan also challenged the industry to cut 20% of sugar from the food most commonly eaten by children by 2020, with a voluntary 5% year one reduction target. Some big names have followed through with this, others haven’t.
What Chapter 2 states is that the government will consider extending the Sugar Tax to include sugary milk drinks if these manufacturers don’t reformulate voluntarily. This is a particularly contentious issue for schools, as the school food standards state that flavoured lower fat milk drinks can be served in schools so long as they have less than 5% added sugar.
The government will consult on its plans to ban the sale of energy drinks to children under 16, a policy that has been given a lot of media attention from Jamie Oliver. It’s likely that this legislation will pass and it will no doubt be a welcome move. 69% of 10- to 18-year-olds consume energy drinks and teachers report that they have a negative effect on learning in the classroom.
A calorie reduction plan was set out in the report and states that a consultation will be launched before the end of the year proposing mandatory, consistent labelling for the out of home sector (likely a traffic light system).
But reducing sugar and calories isn’t going to solve childhood obesity. Children are highly susceptible to advertising. With the help of the Children’s Food Campaign and the #AdEnough campaign championed by Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Chapter 2 plan finally has more concrete actions on this and will consult on introducing a 9pm watershed on TV advertising of junk food. While there has always been a ban on junk food ads during children’s programming, it didn’t cover family viewing such as Britain’s Got Talent. A 9pm watershed will take in the majority of these types of programmes.
The Children’s Food Campaign is slightly reticent to celebrate, however, as the plan only says that it will consider the move. Coordinator Barbara Crowther said: “A commitment to consider is not a commitment to act, and children’s health needs decisive action.”
The plan doesn’t take action over restricting kids’ TV, film and cartoon characters on junk food packaging and junk food sponsorship in sports.
The government will ban price promotions in shops, such as buy one get on free and multi-buy offers for unhealthy food and drink and will also ban their sale at checkouts where so many parents feel the strain of pester power.
Local authorities play a hugely important role in creating a healthy food environment and the report is a bit wishy washy on this. It will develop a three-year trailblazer programme to highlight best practice to help close the deprivation gap, looking at what can be achieved within existing powers and better understand what could be fuelling obesity in specific communities. But really it is going to be up to the industry to pressure local authorities to take bolder steps on issues such as restricting the opening of fast food outlets, particularly close to schools.
The role of schools
Encouragingly, the plan recognised the “fundamental role” schools play in helping to equip children with the knowledge they need to make healthy choices and in creating a healthy environment for children.
Caterers can expect changes to come with the school food standards. The government said it will “be bold” in its update of the standards to reduce sugar consumption, coupled with detailed guidance so caterers are well prepared to adapt to the changes. No date was given for the changes.
Before the end of the year, however, the government will consult on strengthening the nutrition standards in the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services, to bring them into line with the latest scientific dietary advice.
What is quite jarring, however, is Ofsted’s role in this. The plan states that Ofsted’s new framework will “consider how schools build knowledge across the whole curriculum in relation to healthy behaviours”. However, no sooner had the plan been published than Ofsted published a report stating that schools are not a “silver bullet” in reversing childhood obesity – not the whole school approach advocated in the DfE’s plan.
Ofsted visited 60 schools around the country which were found to have responded well to government initiatives on physical activity and healthy eating, but that it was not clear that the specific school interventions could, by themselves, overcome other factors that affect the weight of their pupils.
“In publishing this report, Ofsted has flagrantly disregarded the advice of its own expert advisory panel and risks undermining the vital efforts that schools are making to support children to eat well at a time when the government is taking concerted action to tackle childhood obesity,” said Rob Percival, policy and campaigns manager at the Soil Association.
The Ofsted report concludes that schools are following the standards and while it said that it would make “good economic sense” if more children took up school meals, it found “no evidence” that packed lunches are contributing to the obesity crisis.
Despite the ongoing head to head the school meals industry can have with the schools inspectorate, the DfE is starting to talk more explicitly about the important role that school catering plays in reducing childhood obesity.
So what’s next? The childhood obesity plan is full of promises of consultations, so it is up to the industry to respond to them and be part of the decisions that will shape the course of action to finally reverse National Child Measurement Programme data.
Join us at the EDUcatering Forum on 28th November at Haberdashers’ Hall where we will be debating the tangible steps the industry can take to tackle childhood obesity. Email educateringforum.co.uk to book your ticket for just £20.