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What is the national food strategy?

The national food strategy could transform how we produce, obtain and eat food. Here’s what you need to know about the project

The national food strategy is the plan to transform England’s food system following a landmark review “from farm to fork”, aiming to stop families going hungry and align the nation’s diet with UK climate goals.

It is led by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of fast food chain Leon, who was commissioned by the government to launch the project in 2019.

Here’s what you need to know about the National Food Strategy and the ongoing work to build it.

What is the national food strategy?

The project is the first independent review of England’s food system in 75 years.

It’s hoped the strategy will transform the way England produces, sources and consumes food in a bid to cut down on poverty and improve health across the country, as well as maintaining UK food standards after Brexit.

Experts are aiming to make healthy food accessible and affordable to everyone, protect the food system from future shocks – such as pandemics or the climate crisis – and ensure the way we get our food does not damage the environment.

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They are also exploring how to help the agriculture sector improve sustainability and resilience, while delivering jobs and supporting local economies through the food system. “No part of our economy matters more than food,” Dimbleby said, as the sector provides jobs for one in seven people in England. 

Why is there a national food strategy?

The review was commissioned in the face of increasing food poverty, farming practices that are damaging the environment, population growth and a growing health crisis driven in part by the low-quality food many families have no choice but to eat.

The UK’s food poverty rate is among the highest in Europe. Despite being the sixth richest country in the world, millions are struggling to access the food they need.

Nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February 2021, according to a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

There are also concerns around how the food system will cope under – or contribute to – the climate crisis, with growing consensus that everyone will need to cut down on the amount of meat they consume in the years to come.

How does the national food strategy work?

Dimbleby’s review lasted a year, with the team speaking to people involved with all parts of the food chain, such as farmers, chefs and manufacturers. They consulted experts as well as gathering evidence from marginalised groups, including low-paid workers in food production and people with health issues caused by diet.

The first part of the strategy was published in July 2020, focusing on the links between poverty, obesity and the high number of people who died with Covid-19 in the UK. The report referred to the “slow-motion disaster of the British diet”, and found that 36 per cent of England’s most disadvantaged people are obese.

“Clearly the best way to tackle food poverty is to tackle poverty,” the report said. “There is no dignity in people having to rely on food banks, food stamps or emergency grants from councils.”

In the second and final part of the strategy, published on July 15, Dimbleby said acknowledges that economic measures to tackle poverty are beyond the remit given to Dimbleby when Michael Gove commissioned the project in 2019.

“Ideally, of course, the true cost of eating healthily should be calculated into benefits payments,” the report said.

“Studies in this country have shown that, as poorer families’ income goes up, they spend more on fruit, vegetables, oily fish and other foods rich in vitamins and minerals.”

The report suggests money raised by new taxes could fund the extension of free school meals to families earning less than £20,000. This would mean an additional 1.1 million children could access the service. The meals are currently only given to children from households with an income below £7,400.

The government should also increase its spending on schemes to improve food education and helping low-income families access good quality food, according to the report, proposing a Community Eatwell programme for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to people on low incomes.

Ministers were also advised to create a tax for salty and sugary foods in order to improve the nation’s health after the high Covid-19 death toll proved a “painful reality check”.

It also encourages the government to “nudge” people towards plant-based foods in an effort to cut national meat consumption in the interests of the environment and animal welfare – but admits a meat tax would be “politically impossible”.

The government will publish its response in a white paper six months later, with Dimbledy tasked with reviewing progress after another six months.

What do the experts think?

It’s “invaluable” that the National Food Strategy “recognises that so many people are unable to eat well due to lack of income”, said Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.

She added: “The recommendations to reduce diet-related health inequality through stop gap measures like healthy start vouchers, free school meals and holiday provision are very welcome, but they must go hand in hand with changes that would prevent health inequalities from emerging in the first place.

“Like the dramatic rise in emergency food parcel provision by food banks, the reality that millions of children need food support both in school and during the holidays is testament to the fact that their parents are living in poverty and are unable to afford adequate food.

In little over two months, poverty levels will worsen yet further when universal credit is cut. Over two million people on legacy benefits still need to see an increase in payments while in-work poverty is on the rise. We urgently need to see income-based solutions including adequate social security payments, local authority crisis grants and wages and job security that match the cost of living. These are the measures that will reduce poverty and address diet-related health inequalities for good.”

Right to Food campaigners – who submitted evidence to the project – said it was a “missed opportunity” to make ministers legally accountable for ensuring no family struggles to put food on the table.

“I cannot help but be disappointed at the lack of ambition of the National Food Strategy recommendations to bring about systemic change in the UK,” said Ian Byrne, Labour MP and co-founder of the Right to Food campaign.

“Ten million people in the UK can’t put food on the table – they won’t feel this review speaks for them or helps them. We needed ambition and radicalism and we have not got that in this review. It is certainly a missed opportunity to enshrine the Right To Food into legislation and help to bring ten million people out of food poverty.

“We of course welcome findings such as the increased eligibility of 1.1 million children for free school meals,” Byrne said. “This is a step in the right direction, and we recognise measures like this as an acknowledgement of our campaign and as a small step in tackling the evils of food poverty in the UK.”

The report is a “very well researched and detailed investigation with some strong policy recommendations,” Professor David Barling – head of the Centre for Agriculture, Food and Environmental Management Research at the University of Hertfordshire – told The Big Issue.

“It’s pragmatic in its recommendations,” he added. “They’ve gone with policies they feel the current political administration might address.”

But questions remain around how the report’s suggestions will be put into practice, Barling said.

“They haven’t addressed the the bigger issue of how you coordinate food policy through government. That’s the thing that’s really missing for me. I think it’s a missed opportunity, frankly.

“The Food Standards Agency will have to ensure that the action required for good food is carried out, but at the moment I can’t see how it has the capacity to do that. It will take not just political will but a lot of investment too.”

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