Faculty meals, cooking tradition and farm tech: key factors of the meals technique | Well being coverage

The 290-page National Food Strategy proposes four main objectives: escaping the junk food cycle to protect the NHS; reducing diet-related inequality; making the best use of Britain’s land and protecting the environment; and creating a long-term shift in UK food culture. Here are some of the key recommendations.

Sugar and salt tax

While likely to attract opposition, the proposal to legislate to raise £3.4bn a year from a sugar and salt tax to fund an expansion of free school meals from 2024 would pay long-term dividends for the nation’s health, the food strategy insists.

Its own modelling suggests the tax would lower salt and sugar consumption and reduce average calories eaten per person by up to 38 kcal a day. This would halt weight gain at a population level and cut the risk of stroke and heart disease.

The strategy says it is crucial that the government incentivises manufacturers to make food healthier. Food company bosses say privately it would be hard to make the necessary changes to reformulate products unless the government intervenes to create a level playing field.

If manufacturers do not reduce salt and sugar levels, this could push up prices, putting added financial pressures on households already struggling to put food on the table, and in doing so force them to cut back on healthy but more expensive foods.

To counter this, the strategy proposes a £1.1bn a year programme to get fresh food and food skills to low-income households with children, including an expanded Healthy Start voucher scheme, which provides fruit and vegetable vouchers to parents with young children and pregnant mothers.

Breaking the junk food cycle

The modern world’s “malfunctioning appetites” have created a huge market for unhealthy food, the strategy says, creating a creeping “plague of dietary ill health” costing the NHS billions of pounds and leading to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

“We have a predilection for calorie-dense foods, which means food companies invest more time and money creating these foods, which makes us eat more of them and expands the market, which leads to more investment, which makes us eat more,” says the strategy.

This creates a vicious circle, it says. “Company bosses do not dare to stop investing in these foods in case they lose their competitive edge. Both consumers and food companies are stuck in a reinforcing feedback loop – a junk food cycle.”

On current trends, by 2035 obesity alone will cost the NHS £15bn a year – one and a half times what it spends treating cancer today. More than half of over-45s are living with diet-related health conditions, while poor diet contributes to an estimated 64,000 deaths each year. It calls for government intervention in the form of a Good Food Act.

Expanding free school meals

After the first three years of primary school, during which free school meals are universally available, they are limited to children from households with an income of less than £7,400 before benefits.

“In other words, you have to be extremely poor to qualify. This means there are some children from low-income households going hungry,” the strategy says. “Children with empty stomachs struggle at school: they find it hard to concentrate, their behaviour deteriorates and they are more likely to be disruptive in class.”

It proposes increasing the threshold to £20,000 – an expansion of free school meal eligibility similar to that proposed by the footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford last year.

This would make extra 1.1 million children eligible at a cost nearly £800m a year, funded from the proposed sugar and salt tax. This would ensure 80% of the children most at risk would get free school meals, helping to reduce diet-related inequality, the strategy says.

Changing food and cooking culture

“Eating well is much easier if you know how to cook from scratch,” says the strategy. However, the advent of convenience food in the second half of the last century triggered a decline in culinary skills across every social class. “One generation after another grows up without seeing or trying cookery at home,” it says.

Since 2014 schools have been legally required to teach cookery and nutrition to all children up to the age of 14. But this is not happening in many schools, the strategy says. Food tech is a treated as a second-class subject, “a fun but frivolous distraction from the real business of learning”.

The report calls for a reboot of food education, starting with exploring different foods in early years settings and continuing to sixth form. The food A-level, axed in 2016, should be reintroduced. “It’s time to take food education seriously,” it urges.

Protecting international trade standards

Requiring high environmental standards from British farmers but allowing cheaper and lower-standard imports in new trade deals would not only severely damage farm businesses, the report says, but also simply move the destruction of nature overseas.

Boris Johnson’s government has pledged not to compromise standards as it chases new post-Brexit trade deals, but it has yet to state which standards it means to protect, the report points out, even though new deals have already been struck.

“The government must draw up a list of core minimum standards which it will defend in any future trade deals and set out which mechanisms it intends to use to protect them,” the report says. “Otherwise there is a serious risk that cheap imported food will undermine our own efforts to protect the environment and animal welfare, while undercutting – and potentially bankrupting – our own farming sector.”

Investing in green farming and new tech

Since Brexit, the government has been overhauling the £3bn-a-year farm subsidies, shifting away from payments based on the area farmed towards providing public goods such as natural habitats, carbon storage, better soils and flood protection. Trials are under way but the report says such payments are only guaranteed to 2024, leaving some farmers facing a financial cliff-edge. The budget must be guaranteed until at least 2029 to help farmers adopt more sustainable land use, the report says.

It also calls for a £1bn investment in innovation to create a better food system, including robots and AI to cut fertiliser and pesticide use, new genetic breeding techniques, and feed additives to cut methane from cattle and sheep.

It says £50m should go to entrepreneurs and scientists working on alternative protein to livestock, which would help the UK grab part of the fast-growing markets for plant-based and lab-grown meats.

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