The Government Food Strategy: more research, policies and further consultation needed

The National Food Strategy published in the summer of 2021, was the first comprehensive review of the food system in 75 years, undertaken by an extensive panel of experts with detailed evidence-based recommendations. It resulted in the Government committing to release a White Paper to take forward or reject the suggestions it made. The catering sector eagerly awaited its publication, with the hope that decisive inroads could be made into improving the health of the nation. The latest Government Food Strategy has now been published. Here, two of the allmanhall team take a look: Tess Warnes BSc RD, company dietitian at allmanhall and Joe Evans, a non-executive director of allmanhall and current Chairman of the Environment Committee for The Country Land and Business Association. Together they address the recommendations, what this means for food supply, key take-outs and actions for caterers, and whether the latest report delivers on earlier promises and expectations. 

A key theme of The National Food Strategy was to manage obesity and food poverty by equally addressing issues of diet and sustainability, with particular attention on a tax on sugar and salt and reducing meat consumption whilst increasing fruit and vegetable intake. The theme throughout the newly published Government Food Strategy Report appears to be a considerable lack of action, and instead references the need for more evidence and policies before committing to progress.  Tess Warnes BSc RD, company dietitian at allmanhall comments “the main outcome seems to be the need for more research, policies and further consultation before any concrete actions can take place. At allmanhall, we support catering teams with nutrition and dietetic improvements, so were hopeful that the Government would by now be in a position to implement some of the suggested changes. Instead, they seem to be shying away from any bold transformative recommendations, in particular issues around health and tackling obesity.” 

Joe Evans, non-executive director of allmanhall and current Chairman of the Environment Committee for The Country Land and Business Association, goes on to critique the report from a farming and supply angle and whether it sufficiently addresses food security, balanced with sustainability.

“There is still significant thought required to address the acute challenges to supply chain resilience when it comes to farm producers, too. There are currently 9 main risks* to the UK food production supply chain. These need to be augmented with the very sensible and necessary drive towards Sustainable Farming practices.”

The team at allmanhall go on to say they very much hope to see further evolutions of the Food Strategy to ensure a balanced approach. 

So, what are the outcomes of the latest Food Strategy, and how far do they go to address the key issues of diet and sustainability? 

The Government is suggesting further consultation is needed in a number of areas before any concrete actions can be undertaken;

  • Consult on the ambition for half of public sector expenditure to be spent on food produced locally or to higher environmental standards 
  • Consult on how to improve on and expand animal welfare labelling
  • £270m to be invested across farming innovation to drive sustainable farming 
  • Consult on food waste 
  • Explore innovative feed additives that can reduce methane emissions 
  • Launch a new partnership between public and private sector to provide consumers with more information about the food they eat while incentivising industry to produce healthier, more ethical and sustainable goods
  • Undertake trials to develop evidenced-based interventions to encourage healthier more sustainable diets 
  • Enhanced monitoring regarding School Food Standards. 

On the serious issues of obesity and food poverty, the responsibility has been handed over to be dealt with by the Health Disparities White Paper, which is currently due to be published later this year. 

The report very much emphasises on the rising cost of living as a reason for not making any drastic changes, such as taxing sugar and salt. This had been a key recommendation from the National Food Strategy, but it has been completely ignored in this policy. We have seen how effective mandatory interventions can be, as evidenced by the UK’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy led to a 29% reduction in the average sugar content of soft drinks (2). 

The UK has now the third highest rates of obesity in the G7. Almost three in ten of our adult population are obese (1) meaning bold actions are needed now. The report acknowledges the Junk Food Cycle, as described in the National Food Strategy, but then does not go on to action any suggested solutions. Instead, it focuses more on individuals taking responsibility for their health. As we have seen with the continuing rising rates of obesity it is unrealistic to expect a reduction in body weight solely through individual willpower (3).

Due to the number of people in food poverty, which will likely worsen due to the rising cost of food, it is concerning that the recommendation to extend the eligibility criteria for free school meals has been ignored. Analysis from Child Poverty Action Group suggests 1 in 3 school-age children in England living in poverty miss out on free school meals. (4)

There is very little reference to the recommendations to alter our diet profile by increasing fruit and veg by 30%, fibre by 50% and reducing HFHS foods by 25% and meat by 30%. There is no reference to reducing meat or diary at all, and instead a focus on using different farming methods to reduce methane, despite the National Food Strategy evidencing that we simply cannot reduce methane emissions to a safe level, nor free up the land we need for sequestering carbon, without reducing the amount of meat we eat (5). 

So where does this leave caterers? What can catering teams being doing now rather than waiting?

Tess Warnes BSc RD suggests that

“with very little decided upon now, and so much hanging in the balance requiring further clarification, while we wait for further direction and policy from the Government, caterers can proactively start implementing some actions themselves.”

  • Introduction of meat free days 
  • A ban on certain meats 
  • One vegan or vegetarian option added to menu design
  • A minimum of two portions of vegetables per meal, already in line with existing school standards, widened into other sectors 
  • Consider calling things on a menu ‘vegetable’ rather than ‘vegetarian’
  • Working with suppliers or procurement provider to understand the whole supply chain rather than just the last mile
  • Ask allmanhall about undertaking carbon impact assessment of menus
  • Address food waste in the catering operation – both sustainability and economically beneficial.

Finally, Warnes comments “It’s incredibly frustrating that after all this time since the National Food Strategy was commissioned in 2019, we are not much further along with improving the health of the nation. Action is needed now to help reduce obesity and to create a sustainable food system. We will now await the publication of the health disparities white paper due out later this year in the hope that these issues are more thoroughly addressed.” Evans adds “It seems that the reality of conditions of farming are not currently conducive to also helping improve food security through increased domestic self-sufficiency.  This conflict needs to be addressed through the Government Food Strategy.”

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