How can the UK tackle health inequality?

In the last ten years in the UK, the main strategy for combating obesity and unhealthy lifestyles has been by focusing on education. Although education is beneficial, a new report has suggested that the problem could be linked to poverty itself, rather than a lack of knowledge. Individual responsibility and health advice has worked and improvements have been made. However, health inequality continues and the gap between the richest and poorest in society has continued to grow. Does this mean that the government needs to change its policies? According to the report, it does.

What does the report say?

The new report was released by the Food Foundation. It states that the poorest fifth of families in the UK would need to spend around 42% of their post-housing income on food in order to meet the government’s recommendations for a healthy diet. This is compared to 20%, which is what the richest families would need to meet the guidelines. The Food Foundation point out that as food is the biggest flexible item in a families budget, it’s likely to be the first to suffer in times of financial hardship.

The health risks of financial hardship

With the rising cost of living, there’s been an increase in the number of families struggling to afford healthy food. There are a number of studies that show that families and individuals on restricted budgets will choose food that’s filling over food with health value. As a result of this, it’s estimated that four million children in the UK are living in households that struggle to afford nutrient rich foods like fruit and vegetables.

It’s well documented that an unhealthy diet can lead to various health risks including obesity, cancer and diabetes. Poverty can also contribute to a higher risk of malnutrition. During school holidays in particular, it’s been estimated that three million children in the UK are at risk of hunger and the use of food banks has been increasingly steadily in recent years.

A report released by Unicef has ranked the UK as 34th out of 41 high-income countries in terms of food security, which is defined as being a “lack of secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that can ensure normal growth and development, as well as an active and healthy lifestyle.” Among those at risk of food insecurity is 20% of the country’s children, which is above the average of 12.7% among high-income countries.

Is more funding needed?

Sharon Hodgson, who is the chair of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry committee, said in a statement that: “It cannot be right that 50% of households in the UK currently have insufficient food budgets to meet the government’s recommended Eatwell Guide. A healthy diet, which we know is important for our health and development, should not be unaffordable to so many people. I hope that the government will look into this issue as a matter of urgency, in order to make eating a healthy diet more affordable.”

And she has a point. Research has consistently shown that maintaining a healthy diet is more expensive; and therefore, in order to deal with the issue of health inequality, there need to be long terms measures in place. This could include increasing benefit payments, offering universal free school meals, offering vouchers to families on low incomes, or other initiatives. People need more than just education, they need affordable food and a living wage that reflects the price of food.

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