The Government’s recommended healthy diet is too expensive for many families, which is condemning many children to a life of ill health, a group of Peers has warned.
Government inaction to help families “overcome barriers” to healthy eating has resulted in obesity and diet-related diseases costing the NHS around £6.1 billion per year, and £27 billion to the wider economy, a committee report has found.
The House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee report, published on Monday, argues that without adequate time, knowledge or money to shop for healthy food, the poorest in society are “at risk” from a system which promotes and encourages unhealthy diets.
The committee has called for urgent action to ensure a healthier population and environment, and to level up the most deprived communities.
The report, Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food, warns that people in Britain currently consume more highly processed food than those in any other European country and Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe.
It adds that coronavirus should be a "wake-up call" for urgent action.
“The crisis has exposed the fragility of many people’s economic situation and exacerbated many of the problems relating to poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities... People should be able to access not only enough food, but also the food that they need to stay healthy,” it says.
The report adds that adults and children living in the most deprived areas are about twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas, contributing to a difference in healthy life expectancy of about 20 years.
Citing evidence from the Food Foundation, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems, the report states that “17 per cent of the poorest decile were consuming sufficient fruit and vegetables compared with 26 per cent in the general population”.
The committee called on the Government to measure how many people live with food insecurity and why, to understand the cost of a healthy diet and to incorporate this into benefits calculations, and to curb excessive advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods.
It also suggests that food initiatives for disadvantaged children, such as free school meals, must be properly funded, that an independent body should be established to oversee the implementation of a National Food Strategy that reports annually to Parliament.
Lord Krebs, Committee chairman, said: "Problems of diet and ill health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive Governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can't afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets…
"The Government knows about the problem. It's time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it."
Dr Kate Allen, Executive Director of Science & Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund, welcomed the report, and said around two thirds of the UK are overweight or obese, a figure that has continued to rise over the last 30 years.
“Now that evidence shows obesity also increases the probability of a worse outcome from COVID-19, it is more important than ever that healthy diets are affordable and accessible to all,” she said.