Food for thought
There is a stark contrast between the two sides of the challenge Scotland faces with its diet.
On the one hand, Scotland’s bad eating habits are a significant cause of ill health and obesity in Scotland. An overabundance of unhealthy foods in our diet has contributed to 27.8 per cent of Scots being regarded as obese, with the public cost of tackling obesity expected to rise to £3bn by 2030.
While on the other, many on low incomes are going hungry as they struggle to afford a nutritious diet.
According to the Trussell Trust, the demand for emergency food has increased by over 400 per cent in the last year, with those presenting at Scottish foodbanks reportedly doing so primarily because of benefit delays, benefit changes and low income. At the same time, the Faculty of Public Health has also warned that across the UK, malnutrition and conditions like rickets are becoming more apparent as a result of worsening food poverty.
In Scotland, about 90,000 older people are suffering from malnutrition, of which about 93 per cent will be living in communities, says Michelle McCrindle, Chief Executive of the Food Train.
“So it is a really high number of older people in Scotland. And malnutrition is defined as a BMI of 18 or less, so we are talking really thin, bone thin.”
This summer a new pilot scheme was launched in Dundee to try to improve diets and reduce health inequalities among older people. Funded by the Scottish Government and the Rank Foundation, the Meal Makers project will encourage people to cook an extra portion for an older person in their community.
McCrindle explains how it works.
“Anybody can go to www.mealmakers.org.uk log on and register themselves as a cook.
“So you put in all your details, and what you like to cook. And then from your postcode you can see diners in your area. You can see that there is Jean who lives two miles from you who likes to eat mince and potatoes. Or you can see Bob who is 95 and lives three streets away. Then you click to be matched with them. The project team contacts the diners and cooks individually and helps arrange the first meal share. And from there it really works between the cook and the diner.
“You can have several cooks cooking for the one older person, so they might be getting a pot of soup from one person, a batch of scones from someone else. It is totally flexible. So it is really attractive to people who work full time but would like to volunteer.”
The cooks are interviewed by the Meal Makers team and must have filled in an environmental health questionnaire and joined the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme before they are matched with an older person, she adds. And the team also follow-up on the meal shares to ensure it is all working out.
“And that’s it. It is dead simple. And from essentially one web platform this can be a Scotland-wide project.”
The web platform, which was based on the Casserole Club concept that was designed by Futuregov, went live in August and they already have 60 cooks signed up with the first meal share taking place earlier this month.
McCrindle says they have been “overwhelmed” by the response.
“I think it says such a lot about the people of Scotland, they care enormously about each other and, when given the support, are happy and willing to be involved.”
However, she is keen to go further still and explore whether the model can also be used to address food poverty among volunteers.
“One of the things we are aiming to do over the course of the two-year pilot is look at everywhere that food is cooked, and particularly wasted. So have we got local venues that are cooking a lot of food at mealtimes and then throwing food out? Could we match up someone who can barely afford to cook for themselves on a very low income but wants to be involved?”
Public Health Minister Michael Matheson agrees the project is beneficial on a number of levels.
“I think the important part of the Meal Makers project is it is about trying to tackle the issue of older people who may be experiencing inequality and help them improve their diet.
“But it is also about trying to help support some social cohesion within communities in that it is someone within their own local community who is preparing the meal for the individual and it is then being taken to their home. And I think that is all about trying to build the assets we have within our communities and to utilise them to the best of their ability in order to overcome some of the challenges we have in our communities around isolation, food poverty and health inequalities.
“So I think it is a really good model of the local community playing its part in helping to tackle some of these issues.”
Matheson has recently been progressing the Scottish Government’s Food (Scotland) Bill, which includes the creation of a new independent food safety and standards body, Food Standards Scotland. Its tasks will include: developing and helping others to develop policies on food and animal feedstuffs; advising the Scottish Government and others on food and animal feedstuffs; keeping the public and users of animal feedstuffs advised to help them make more informed decisions; and monitoring the performance of enforcement authorities in enforcing food legislation.
However, Matheson explains that it will also have a coordinating role around tackling problems associated with diet and obesity.
“In the past, the Food Standards Agency as it stands has had a limited role in that field and a number of different organisations have taken forward different areas of work trying to tackle obesity and trying to get people to change their diet. And what we want to do with Food Standards Scotland is for them to have a much clearer coordinating role in helping to draw together the different elements that have to be taken forward in order to deal with these areas. So having a national organisation allows us to do that much more effectively. And also to do it in a way that is much more responsive to the specific challenges we’ve got in Scotland.”
The Health and Sport Committee has been considering the Bill and recently published its Stage 1 report. Speaking during the debate on the legislation, committee convener, Duncan McNeil MSP, said the committee is pleased that the new food body will seek to address the key issues of diet and nutrition and their links with obesity and ill health, but added that, “We look forward to that ambition being achieved because saying it and doing it are, as we know, different things.”
While the Bill covers a number of areas, he described the new food body as “the meat in the sandwich”.
“Our report makes clear that there were a number of differing views on the proposed powers and scope of Food Standards Scotland. Nourish Scotland, for example, suggested that Food Standards Scotland should focus on improving the nation’s diet and nutrition. The Scottish Food and Drink Federation thought that the new body should play an active role in growing the food and drink industry in Scotland – food for thought.
“We took the view that Scotland already has a great reputation for its food and drink and that raising the standards and safety of our produce can only serve to further boost that reputation. The committee is therefore satisfied with the proposed powers and remit of Food Standards Scotland and we are hopeful that those powers will be deployed in a proportionate and appropriate way.”
The Scottish Government has also been working with industry to urge them to take further action to encourage customers to make healthier choices, Matheson says. The Supporting Healthy Choices Voluntary Framework, which launched in June, set out specific voluntary actions that the food industry could take, such as rebalancing promotional choices to encourage healthier choices, improving information available to customers, and reformulating recipes to reduce levels of salt, sugar and fat.
Within the food industry, there are a significant number of companies who are prepared to play their part, Matheson insists. However, he acknowledges that given the nature of the problem, he would like to see a greater number taking action on the reformulation of products and rebalancing of promotions.
“We need to see that happening on a larger scale and on a more consistent basis. To date it has been somewhat piecemeal and some of them have not moved as quickly as we would have liked to see them doing. So it is really important that they see themselves as being part of the solution to this matter.”
While other countries have considered more direct legislative measures, such as taxes on fat and sugar, Matheson says his instinct is to proceed on a voluntary basis and to try to persuade the industry to see themselves as part of the solution.
“There is always the potential at some point in the future that government does consider that it has to take a more litigious route in trying to deal with this issue. But I don’t think that is in anybody’s interest because the sooner we can get agreements in place and changes taking place within the retail sector in particular, then the sooner we will start to address this issue much more effectively. So my instinct here is to do it in partnership with industry.”
However, while he would prefer not to go down the legislative route just now, he is also mindful that if industry doesn’t respond then the nature of the challenge will continue to escalate and the call for government to take a more restrictive approach will grow.
“And at that point, government will have to come to a decision on what is the best approach to take if the voluntary approach has not been successful,” he warns.
Within its White Paper, the Scottish Government had argued that independence would give Scotland more control over some of the levers – for example, advertising – that could be useful in addressing the issue of obesity.
“We know there are particular challenges around the sorts of promotions that both retailers and food businesses operate. And unfortunately, a lot of those promotions tend to be around products which do not contribute positively to eating a healthy diet,” Matheson explains.
“One of the measures we could have taken forward around advertising is more restrictions around the type of advertising that both food companies and retailers can have on these types of products.”
Again, he highlights the voluntary arrangements currently in place to encourage manufacturers and retailers to take a more responsible approach.
“But if we don’t get enough progress made on a voluntary basis then we naturally will have to look at whether we put any statutory regulation around these matters. The challenge we will have going forward after a No vote is that we will not have the legal basis in order to possibly take the action that would have been necessary if we don’t see right progress being made within the industry. That is an area that had we got a Yes vote, we could have been much more proactive on if it is necessary.”
However, he adds that there may still be scope within the current conversation about further devolution for some of those levers to come to Holyrood.
“One of the key areas where we need to make more progress is around tackling inequality,” he says.
“Inequality, historically, has been looked at as an issue that has to be resolved within health. But if we are going to tackle inequality in our society, we need to deal with the root causes of it. So that is about poverty, it is about the lack of opportunity, it is about issues such as individuals not being able to purchase the right foodstuffs for themselves because of cost.
“If we are going to deal with those issues effectively, we need the powers to do that. And that is why the approach that we are going to set out to the Smith Commission is going to be around powers with a purpose, rather than just a checklist.”
How well do you know sugar?
That was the question asked of shoppers at Dundee’s Wellgate Shopping Centre who visited the Know Sugar pop-up shop in August.
Developed from a programme led by the University of Dundee and the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s first Design in Action Chiasma that was held in Glasgow in February, the pop-up shop was the world’s first on how to live a low-sugar lifestyle.
Visitors were invited to profile map their personal awareness of their sugar consumption, take the Know Sugar challenge, obtain an in-depth health check, and interact with a prototype kitchen space stocked with ready-made ‘grab bags’ and ingredients that can be prepared into full low sugar meals. On the way out, they were also invited to focus on future changes in their relationship with sugar by contributing to the ‘Now I Know Sugar, my pledge is…’ chalkboard.
“There is rarely a day that passes without sugar being on our TVs or in our newspapers. Sugar being dubbed ‘the new nicotine’ has been a huge source of inspiration and drive for our team,” Lauren Currie, co-founder of Snook, the design agency leading Know Sugar, said.
“We hope the Know Sugar Shop will educate, inform and inspire citizens to rethink their relationship with sugar and take positive action,” she said, adding that following the successful pilot, the team is now seeking further investment and hopes to scale the idea across the UK.