Helping Londoners make good food choices – thoughts on the London Food Strategy

By Anne Widjaja

Sadiq Khan’s ‘war on junk food’ has put London’s childhood obesity crisis back in the headlines, but our food system remains plagued by a paradox of problems. We throw away about 540,000 tonnes of food waste a year, whilst the demand for emergency food supplies from our food banks has more than doubled in the past two years. So what is the government doing to improve the way Londoners eat?

london bus

At the Chefs’ Manifesto Action Hub launch in June, Liam Weeks from the Mayor’s food policy team presented the draft London Food Strategy over breakfast. The strategy outlines a plan to provide ‘every Londoner [with] access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate good food regardless of where they live, their personal circumstance or income.’

Liam's session

Considering that on average it takes a person 6-8 seconds to make a decision about food, the strategy focuses on ways to influence people’s every day food choices in different settings – the home; communities; retail and business; education; maternity and healthcare services. Examples of Mayor run initiatives supporting this aim include Kitchen Social, which provides children with healthy food during the school holidays, and the Healthier Catering Commitment, helping takeaway shops serve healthier food to their customers. To reduce the food system’s impact on the environment, the strategy also promotes urban growing; plant-based, seasonal and local food businesses; and a more efficient food system with less waste and pollution.

enviro side

Importantly, the strategy recognises the link between food access and social inequality. 40% of children aged 10-11 years in London are obese, many of whom live in the city’s most deprived areas. A person living in Richmond is likely to live 17 years longer than someone living in Tower Hamlets. These stark facts suggest it would be naïve to ignore that ‘good food’ simply costs more. If a cheaper, more convenient food option is available, even with some knowledge of what a healthy diet is, why would you choose to spend more? Even with the efforts of healthy food initiatives like Bags of Taste, who run classes on how to prepare healthy meals for less than a pound per head, the perception that good food is expensive is difficult to challenge.

We see teenagers loitering in local chippies, with a bag of sweets in hand, because unhealthy food is cheap, tasty and addictive. Even with the ban on junk food ads and hot food stores near schools, can we expect young people to make informed food decisions when they have little knowledge or exposure to ’good food’? Perhaps this is why the strategy’s focus on access to good food in the home has the greatest potential for long-term change of people’s behaviour. Introducing new habits during formative times, such as healthy food education programmes in schools and incentivising new parents to feed their children nutritious food, can help families to make better food choices. Intervening early may just help Londoners form ‘good food’ habits for life.

school kids

Ways to engage: