Comment Editor Chelsie Henshaw argues that the government’s new strategy is misguided, seemingly disregarding the links between obesity and poverty

Written by Chelsie Henshaw
Images by stevepb

The government have decided that the best way to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK is to include calorie information on menus in restaurants and pubs and ban unhealthy ‘buy one get one free’ deals. It seems to be that the same government who were reluctant to extend the free school meal policy are now failing those suffering from food poverty again with their new strategies to confront obesity. Whilst it is clear that something needs to be done to improve the issue, this new proposal is likely to do more harm than good. The government is failing to acknowledge the link between food poverty and obesity, and until they do, any strategy is unlikely to improve the problem. 

The government is failing to acknowledge the link between food poverty and obesity, and until they do, any strategy is unlikely to improve the problem

For too long society has completely ignored the link between food poverty and obesity. In past years, we have seen Jamie Oliver try to tackle obesity ‘principally as a diet problem, rather than a social one.’ As an article by The Guardian rightly states, Oliver ‘does not entirely understand what it is like to live in grinding poverty.’ Oliver has spent years attacking unhealthy ‘buy one get one free’ deals, seemingly not understanding the detrimental effect this could have for those living in poverty. It is too easy for those in privileged positions to completely ignore the intricacies of food poverty. Whilst in an ideal world everyone would eat healthy, nutritious meals, this is often not feasible for those living in poverty for a variety of reasons. 

Those living in poverty often rely on cheaper, unhealthier foods with a higher caloric intake, for example, frozen chips. Although this decision is certainly not the healthiest, it is often the only option for families in need. This is due to the fact that typically unhealthy foods are often cheaper than classically healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and you get more for your money when it comes to foods such as chips. Many consistently argue that fruit and vegetables are cheap to buy and therefore those living in poverty are seemingly lazy. An example of this is a Twitter user stating that ‘“healthy food” being too expensive is a lazy mentality.’ This is a dangerous viewpoint and there are several points which show how misinformed this idea is. 

First and foremost, whilst on the surface level fruit and vegetables seem cheap, in terms of forming meals, they are not. A pack of six Tesco Braeburn apples comes in at £1.60, around 32p per apple. Now, many will read this and think that is fairly inexpensive, but the situation is much more nuanced than that. The average amount of calories per apple amounts to a mere 71, and thus many will eat an apple as a light snack. A pack of apples is likely to only last around two days in a standard household if everyone has one as a snack per day. Therefore, whilst it can be easy to say fruit is cheap, it does not provide a substantial meal and for those on a budget, feeding themselves and their children three substantial meals a day is a priority. As explained by Felicity Lawrence, purchasing cheap, higher-calorie food is ‘very rational.’

This idea can also be seen in vegetables. A study has shown that 100 calories from broccoli would cost you 51p, whereas 100 calories from frozen chips would cost as little as 2p. Broccoli is therefore 25 times more expensive than frozen chips in terms of calorie intake. Unfortunately, according to Lawrence ‘the cheapest calories are the wrong kind of calories.’ The government, therefore, should focus more on making healthy food accessible, as opposed to limiting ‘unhealthy’ foods.

The government, therefore, should focus more on making healthy food accessible, as opposed to limiting ‘unhealthy’ foods

Those in poverty are also likely to have less time on their hands for preparing and cooking nutritious meals: when you are working long hours, the last thing anyone wants to do is cook a long meal at the end of the day. Empathy for those in these situations is vital, people are often too quick to jump to conclusions. Furthermore, sometimes it is simpler to feed your children what you know they will eat. Families who struggle with food poverty cannot afford to buy foods that will inevitably be wasted by a fussy child. 

So, I have given my thoughts on the link between obesity and poverty, now here are the facts. Those born in 2001 from ‘lower socioeconomic classes were likely to have a higher body weight compared with higher-class children born at the same time.’ It seems that nowadays the link between poverty and weight has reversed: whilst previously those from poorer backgrounds were more likely to be represented in the underweight categories, they are now more likely to be overweight or obese than their richer counterparts. This highlights the fact that children from lower socioeconomic groups are unfortunately disproportionately represented in the higher weight categories. 

It seems to me that the government certainly needs to rethink their priorities. Their plan to improve the rates of obesity is weak-minded, likely only to further the divide for those in food poverty. Meanwhile, the government have put a lot of effort into maintaining the economy. This is exemplified by their new Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Is it not ironic that the same government who apparently want to shame those for their eating choices are encouraging more people to eat out with discounts? The same energy that the government is putting into keeping the economy afloat should be used to help those in food poverty.

The same energy that the government is putting into keeping the economy afloat should be used to help those in food poverty

Again, the government certainly needs to gain a better understanding of the policies they are making and analyse their effects. They have consistently ignored those in food poverty and their new policy is no different. Back in June, we witnessed how the government only made a U-turn on their proposed end for free school meals after the intervention of Marcus Rashford. Rashford argued that ‘food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.’ Celebrities like Rashford should not have to get involved for the government to take the issue seriously. It is clear that the government are routinely failing those in poverty, and something needs to be done.

Essentially, I do not believe that the new government scheme to tackle obesity will yield any positive results. It only serves to reinforce the stigma around healthy eating and food poverty, whilst making it fundamentally harder for those on lower incomes to feed themselves and their families. The issue of food poverty is one that affects roughly 8.4 million in the UK and they have gone unrecognised for too long. It needs to be reiterated that ‘obesity is not caused by a moral failure of individuals,’ but often by socioeconomic factors.

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