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Former government food tsar shares his thoughts on the health of the nation

Author and former government food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, has been sharing his thoughts on the world’s food system with members of the Ipswich Suffolk Business Club.

Henry’s book, Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape, which was published in March, builds on his work on the independent National Food Strategy.

Henry said: “When we went around the country for the National Food Strategy there were a couple of things, we identified that make it difficult to have more fruit and veg, to eat more healthily. Some families already get healthy start vouchers where you can buy fruit and veg, and they said because they had the voucher it didn’t feel like extravagance to have a bowl of fruit on the table whereas if they are really scraping to get by, the fruit bowl is the first thing to go. When you are working to a tight budget, you can’t take risks. Anyone with children will be able to relate to trying to get them to eat fruit and veg and that struggle and if you are struggling, you can’t afford to give them something else. You need to make sure every penny you spend goes into their bellies, so you become more risk-adverse and stick with the tried and tested and what the children love to have.”

“Young marketers are taught about a thing called expandability which is how much more of any given product will someone eat if there is a bogof deal. The expandability on fruit and veg is very low so you might buy it if there’s an offer, but you’ll eat the same amount whereas on chocolate the expandability is 93%. You might buy it thinking I’ll save it but actually it’s in the house and it goes fast!

In Ravenous Henry explains about the junk food cycle and how this is a barrier to becoming a healthy nation. He told members of the Ipswich Suffolk Business Club: “Most people think the solution is education, willpower, and exercise. But actually, that is all provable wrong. Most people know what they should be eating. Appetite makes you seek out. in particular, highly calorie-dense foods that are high in fat, in sugar and salt because those would have been rare when we evolved and so you get a particularly strong reward almost like crack cocaine. These types of foods fill you up less quickly. Food companies over the years have spent more time and money on developing these types of foods and we have eaten more. That is the junk food cycle, that sort of toxic relationship between the commercially sensitive companies and our appetites. We are not going to be able to educate our way out; we either change the commercially sensitive companies like restricting advertising, putting in place reformulation taxes etc or we can try and hack the appetite like appetite supressing drugs. I worry that because governments see getting involved with commercially sensitive companies as difficult, we will end up prescribing millions of people with these drugs. That route means you are solving the symptom and not the cause.”

In 2013, Henry co-authored The School Food Plan. This resulted in the introduction of free school meals for all children up to the age of eight, and cooking lessons being made obligatory for all children up to 14. Henry is also the co-founder and former CEO of Leon restaurants and co-founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association and the charity, Chefs in Schools.

From 2018 until earlier this year, Henry was the lead nonexecutive board member of DEFRA. He has also advised the Labour party on how to improve the sustainability and security of the food system.

Henry adds “People know what they should be eating but often they lack the skills to cook. For Chefs in Schools, we do two things, we try and get them to eat good food in their school canteen and also the skills for later life to cook healthily. We do quite a bit of ‘lads and dads’ cookery, but it is a problem that a generation has been missed in not having these skills which stems from the emancipation of women. Women going into the workforce and then that is when processed food, ready meals etc were produced. There is definitely a skills gap there.”

In addressing these issues, Henry thinks reacting locally might help to solve some of the problems:

“If you are in a position of responsibility like a farmer or a GP or a supermarket manager, there is a lot to be said for people from all different parts of the food profession to meet up and to see if from different angles and talk about the issues locally.”

Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape is available to purchase now.

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Toby Kramers

Committee Chair

Toby was brought up in Suffolk and, after a brief spell at University and working in London, returned to Ipswich to work in a legal practice in Ipswich in the 1990s where he has worked ever since as a solicitor specialising in Commercial Property.

Outside of work, Toby enjoys politics (he was Chairman of and remains involved in the South Suffolk Conservative Association), singing (he has performed with the Essex University Choir) and country sports. He is involved in a number of local charities.