Food matters: why feeding the world should be a 'public health project'

Libby Grundy, Food for Life Director at the Soil Association, talks to the Ecologist about the food challenges facing the planet and what's inspiring her work...
Feeding the world needs to be seen as a public health project as much as an agricultural one

What are the biggest food challenges currently facing us?

Thinking globally, the big challenge is how we can feed the world a healthy diet. Too often, ‘feeding the world’ is framed as all about producing enough food – mostly grain for livestock - to support a globalised version of the Western diet, but this same diet is threatening to cripple health services around the world with epidemics of diabetes and obesity.

Closer to home, the most acute challenge right now is food poverty, and the need to find some lasting solutions beyond the food banks. The slower-burning cultural challenge is how to give our children a more positive and healthy relationship with food so they have a better chance of feeding themselves and their families well in future. 

Is enough being done to address these issues/problems? If not, what needs doing?

Feeding the world needs to be seen as a public health project as much as an agricultural one, which would give us a chance of coming up with the right answers globally. Back at home, we urgently need to focus in on the youngest and most disadvantaged children and take every opportunity to feed them well and educate them and their parents about food.

It is a disgrace that free nutritious meals will not be provided for the most vulnerable 2 year olds due to start their 15 free hours of childcare in September. This is a huge opportunity missed. On a more positive note, the School Food Plan due to be launched any day by the Department for Education, should finally give school food and food education the emphasis it deserves in schools.

What is the Soil Association currently working on?

Feeding the world needs to be seen as a public health project as much as an agricultural one

Our Food for Life Partnership work, which is already transforming food culture in over 4500 schools, has just received £3.6 million from the Big Lottery to extend the learning into early years settings, hospitals, care homes, universities and workplaces. The partnership supports schools to provide fresh, well-sourced and healthy meals at lunchtimes and gives children and families the opportunity to make better food choices through increasing their cooking and growing skills and gaining a better understanding of where their food comes from. Independent evaluations have demonstrated big benefits for public health, school achievement and local economies from this work.

Our Food for Life Catering Mark already accredits over 140 million meals a year in these settings, helping to raise standards on health, sustainability and local sourcing. The Department for Education’s School Food Plan, the Department of Health and Public Health England are all actively championing this work. Our Out to Lunch campaign is working to improve food and service offered to children when they eat out with their families. Our researchers found that most restaurants aren’t meeting the needs of children. We’re about to launch a league table to show the state of UK restaurants and will be working with the industry to make changes. 

Who (or what) - in the food sphere - have you recently found inspiring or tasty?

Leon co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, who have co-led the School Food Plan for the Department of Education, deserve recognition for the vision and drive with which they have gone about their task. And Janet Parkinson, retiring Headteacher at Haworth Primary School who spoke at our tenth-anniversary celebration for the Food for Life Partnership last week, reminded me again of why it all matters so much, saying that Food for Life had helped turn her school around: “We went from a failing school to being in the top 5% for school like ours. Not a week goes by now without a school calling up and asking to visit, and pupil leadership in school has been revolutionised.”

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