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Childhood Obesity: The Food Around Us

by Now Then Sheffield
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As the general election campaign kicks off, one thing's for certain - the outcome will have a huge impact on the health of the children of Sheffield.

Last month the annual childhood and obesity data was published. Sheffield's childhood overweight and obesity rates have steadily risen over the past five years. One in five children in Sheffield is overweight and obese when they start primary school at ages 4-5 years, and that increases to one in three children by the time they leave primary school at 10-11 years. Children with learning disabilities and those living in the most deprived parts of the city are more likely to be overweight and obese, with the gap between affluent children and those less well-off widening.

These worrying trends are the result of a multitude of socio-political factors: almost ten years of austerity policies, stagnant wages, precarious and low-paid work, and welfare reforms including cuts to disability benefits and the roll-out of universal credit. The consequent sluggish local economy has forced many independent businesses, like butchers, grocers, and bakers, to close. As a consequence some families, even when in work, are struggling to buy fresh fruit and vegetables locally at affordable prices, with these areas coming to be known as 'food deserts'.

Greenhill, Lowedges, Shiregreen, Richmond, Gleadless and Hemsworth are just a few examples of food deserts in Sheffield. A 2018 analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organisation concluded that the UK had the greatest number of people experiencing food insecurity in Europe, with a fifth of all the people experiencing food insecurity across the 27 member states living in the UK. The explosion of food banks across Sheffield is a stark reminder of this insecurity in our city.

Food retail price promotions are more common in Britain than anywhere else in Europe

Up to half the people living in food deserts in Sheffield report not owning a car. Coupled with rising bus prices, this has forced families to scramble to find more calories per pound they spend, leading them to buy cheap, unhealthy, energy-dense foods that are often on promotion. Food retail price promotions are more common in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, with unhealthy foods promoted more frequently than other options. Central government has set a 20% sugar reduction target for the food and drink industry by 2020 when compared with 2015 levels. In 2018, a paltry 2.9% reduction had been achieved.

Support for children who are likely to experience weight-related health problems is patchy. With the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the coalition government transferred the responsibility for public health and prevention services from the NHS to local authorities. That, concurrent with slashed council budgets, has had a disastrous impact on prevention services in Sheffield, which have been cut consistently every single year.

Despite rising childhood obesity, there is currently no specialist support from Sheffield City Council or the NHS for severely obese children in Sheffield and the third sector is attempting to plug the gaps. Shine Health Academy, a not-for-profit organisation, provides specialist support to obese children to help them lose weight and address medical and mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Shine Academy relies on funding from Children In Need and that money is set to run out at the end of 2020.

The Chief Medical Officer's 2019 report on rising childhood obesity made some regressive recommendations, like VAT on unhealthy foods and banning eating on public transport. These would do little to address food insecurity and the commercial determinants of rising childhood obesity.

As a General Election looms, public spending, the NHS, living wage, education and the environment are all on the political agenda. These renewed policies could potentially re-shape and empower our communities, families and children, bringing welcome changes for childhood health and wellbeing in Sheffield.

Rizwana Lala

by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 141

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