Make school meals free at the point of delivery and adopt a whole system approach to tackle UK’s obesity problem, expert in food and public health tells Parliament

 15 March 2024 15 March 2024
15 March 2024

A leading academic from the University of Hertfordshire has advised members of the House of Lords that a whole system approach is necessary to tackle inequalities relating to food, diet and obesity.

Professor Wendy Wills, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at the University of Hertfordshire, and a Professor of Food and Public Health, added that there is evidence of wider access to free school meals having a beneficial effect on children’s weight.

Professor Wills was giving oral evidence on 14th March to The Food, Diet and Obesity Committee of the House of Lords, which has been appointed to consider the role of foods, such as ‘ultra-processed foods’, and foods high in fat, salt and sugar, in a healthy diet and tackling obesity.

Professor Wills gave evidence with two other academics, Professor Amelia Lake, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Teesside University, and Professor Maria Bryant, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, University of York. The Committee’s hearings are being televised live.

All three witnesses agreed that a whole system approach is the right way to make more progress on the issues and ‘level out’ inequalities for the poorest families. This approach involves identifying all relevant organisations who need to work in partnership to tackle not just access to food and the quality of it, but also wider factors such as anti-social behaviour, transport, and the impact of socio-economic disparities including low incomes and living with disability or poor physical or mental health.

Professor Wills emphasised that establishing whole system approaches must involve the communities they aim to benefit, adding, “it has not always been the case that communities have been involved and this has to change”.

She said Scotland was ahead of the game in introducing a whole system approach across its regions and that “small pots of money”, if well-targeted, could make an important difference.

All three academics concurred with the committee that countless measures to tackle issues relating to poor diet and obesity at a national level have so far failed the communities they should benefit.

Professor Wills suggested that it is not effective to focus solely on individuals’ behaviour and that poor diet and obesity are structural, not behavioural issues. These are compounded for households with children, low incomes, disabilities and health conditions including type two diabetes. This complexity is one reason why stepping back to look at the problem from a broader perspective is necessary.

She also argued that there is some evidence that free school meals have value especially at primary school level, where obesity levels start to rise. She said packed lunches prepared at home are often higher in calories than school meals, and her research leads her to conclude that we should, “feed as many children at school as possible, without them having to pay. This is an issue of social justice as well as better nutrition”.

The Committee’s inquiry is accepting written evidence until 8 April. This was the fourth session for receiving oral evidence, and the Committee will produce and publish a report with conclusions and recommendations.


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