Published on August 1st, 2014 |
by Will Highfield
It’s time to act on child obesity
It may not surprise you that nearly one in three children in England are estimated to be obese or overweight, forecast to rise to two in three by 2050. The crisis is currently estimated to cost the NHS £4.2bn a year. It’s time we did more about it, and making healthy meals compulsory in academies and free schools would be a good start.
Child obesity is clearly a major public health challenge, and the associated risks are well documented. When obese children reach adulthood, they’re highly likely to remain obese and be at increased risk of early death, disability, eating disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, raised cholesterol, and certain cancers – need I go on? And that’s not even going into the emotional and psychological effects, such as low self-esteem and depression.
Fundamentally, childhood overweight and obesity is caused by unhealthy eating and not enough physical activity. This does, as the World Health Organization point out, simplify the problem. The crisis is linked to numerous areas, such as transport, urban planning, and education. Given this, it’s clear from the outset that it would be overly simplistic, perhaps even naive, to advocate a single “silver bullet” solution.
As is widely recognised, we need a plurality of solutions spanning a variety of areas. Each policy also needs to be justifiable, striking the right balance between respecting individual liberty and maximising the well-being of society. Like any public health solutions, the steps to tackle childhood obesity are likely to focus on prevention and involve some kind of government action.
The Faculty of Public Health says solving the crisis requires “nothing less than a fundamental policy overhaul to address.” A quick look at the government’s policies reveal a kind of ‘nudging’ attitude toward the crisis, such as helping people make healthy choices and encouraging businesses to sign health pledges. But sometimes self-regulation doesn’t work, and people and businesses don’t necessarily “do the right thing.” Perhaps it’s time for a more paternalistic approach – especially when it comes to children.
What follows is only one example of the extent to which we should be going to tackle child obesity. The key bit of backstory is that former education secretary Michael Gove exempted academies and free schools in 2010 from national school food standards. These health standards, which have been compulsory at maintained schools in England since 2006, improve the behaviour and concentration of children as well as reducing their salt and fat intake.
Some academies, such as those mentioned in this article, do appear to provide perfectly healthy lunches. But research by the School Food Trust in 2011-2012 found that some academies were not following health standards. Rather, they were exposing children to food that that was simply too high in sugar, fat, and salt. They also claim that, in general, school food is improved by compulsory standards and degraded by voluntary standards.
The School Food Trust conclude that such schools are going against the best interests of pupils. Terence Stephenson, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, seems to agree. He recently said that this exemption from standards puts children at risk of obesity. With almost one in four English schoolchildren belonging to an academy, and with more schools expected to become academies, this is a pretty significant risk.
It seems uncontroversial to argue that the welfare of children is more important than the freedom of academies to serve up unhealthy food. So I must agree with the School Food Trust’s proposal for all schools to be legally obliged to follow health standards. And to top it off, so too did about 92% of parents polled in 2012.
Some may think that this is rather heavy-handed – ‘nanny state’ on the warpath. I understand where this concern is coming from, and do myself see great value in allowing individuals to pursue their own conception of the good life – so long as it doesn’t harm others – and learn from their own mistakes.
Nevertheless, we must not forget the nature of the problem – this is about children, not adults. Adults can, on the whole, make their own choices and are aware of possible consequences. But children don’t choose where they live or what they eat, and they don’t know the long-term risks of obesity.
The government is perfectly within its rights to say that the ‘good life’ does not, for children, involve unhealthy schools meals, thereby putting them at risk of obesity and the heightened possibility of cancer and early death when they grow up.
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