Childhood obesity is a defining health crisis of our time. It is having a devastating impact on the lives of children – obese children face long term challenges of ill-health and economic hardship – and is placing an extraordinary burden on health services and putting pressure on national finances. The numbers of children leaving school overweight is significant – one in five children in the UK and US are obese.
Childhood obesity is a wickedly difficult problem touching nearly every sector of the economy. And it’s grown at an alarming rate, the prevalence of childhood obesity is three times higher today than thirty years ago. And is twice as likely to affect the poorest children.
It’s driven by a complex convergence of factors including:
- Prevalence of diets heavy in salt, fat and sugar;
- A move to more sedentary lifestyles;
- Lack of access to healthy, fresh, foods; and
- Low levels of cooking, food and nutrition literacy.
There is evidence that concerted action at scale can reverse trends in childhood obesity and have a big impact on children’s lives. Of particular note, in Amsterdam, the number of overweight children dropped 12% from 2012 to 2015 as a result of a determined effort to ensure every child (aged 0-10 years) in the city has a healthy weight by 2023. The program has targeted action across children’s food environment including ensuring schools switch water for sugary drinks, promoting after-school activities and banning sponsorship by fast food companies.
Childhood obesity poses a significant public policy challenge. Policy changes to areas including the education system, food regulation, advertising and healthcare will be critical to making progress. The engagement of the corporate sector will be equally important. While it’s been on the agenda for food companies for well over a decade, progress to date has been very limited. Actions have been piecemeal and responsibility for acting has been pushed from parents, to policy makers and food companies.
While diet related disease is not a strong theme in the UN’s sustainable development goals, many are seeing 2030 as a milestone in the fight against this disease. Reversing these damaging health trends by 2030 is challenging but achievable. It will require concerted action and collaboration. It will require every company to ask:
- In what ways does our business influence the food environment for children?
- What are the risks and opportunities for us?
- How can we support better childhood obesity outcomes?
- How can we support our employees, customers and partners to improve outcomes?
- Who do we need to work with to get this done?
True progress, at the scale we need to reverse this trend, will require corporate engagement and action beyond the usual suspects in the food, retail and restaurant sectors.
We describe below what an ambitious program of activity might look like across sectors.
It’s clear that changing the food environment for children will require action at scale across sectors. It will require companies big and small to act. There are signs of significant change afoot, with companies starting to make positive steps. To take one recent example, the Jamie Oliver Group, at the forefront of campaigning for children’s food for so long, have recently agreed a new partnership with the retailer Tesco’s to inspire healthy eating. Paul Hunt, the Group CEO describes this move as an important step in the company’s drive to tackle childhood obesity: “Working with organisations such as Tesco is a vital part of helping to drive positive change by providing inspiration and easier access to healthier and affordable food to their millions of customers. Powerful partnerships like this allow our business to help tackle this massive challenge and influence change at a scale we couldn’t achieve on our own. By working together, anything is possible.”