Less than two weeks to go. The manifestos have been scrutinised; the TV debates have been fascinating. The NHS is, of course, one of the key battleground issues that will help to shape how our next parliament looks. So why, then, is there one topic on which this election is worryingly quiet?
How our children learn to eat today decides the health of our nation in fifty years time. How kids eat now will directly affect the NHS’ finances in future. Around one in three children is overweight or obese as they leave primary school.
Frankly, you can’t talk about NHS policy and not talk about the fundamental problem that unless we give the kids of today better skills to feed themselves well in the future, the costs of treating conditions linked to malnutrition in all its forms will spiral not just out of control, but into the stratosphere.
Politicians of all stripes make much of treating the cause and not the symptoms. If the NHS budget is buckling under the strain of managing conditions linked to obesity; if use of food banks in this country is increasing, we need to treat the (very complex) causes and do much, much more to help people eat better.
And that all starts with children. Get them into the right habits now, and they’ll pay us back in the long-term – as healthier adults, fit to work for longer and to pass on their healthier lifestyle to their kids.
Where do the right habits come from? Getting the foundations right. Good food in childcare, good food in schools and good food for any child being looked after by the state. It’s about giving all of those places the support they need to get their infrastructure right – kitchens fit for purpose and dining spaces where children want to spend mealtimes. It’s skills, knowledge and confidence for everyone who feeds children, including parents. It’s lots of opportunities to learn to cook right through children’s education, and it’s about helping families to make better food choices: making it fundamentally easier to understand food labels and managing far more effectively the way in which less healthy foods are marketed to children, wherever that marketing takes place.
Very little of the noise in this election campaign so far has been about children’s nutrition, even though some of the key policy battlegrounds are intrinsically linked: the NHS, poverty, welfare. Yes, there are bits and pieces across the manifestos but no one party is really showing how policies to get children eating better need to join up – right across departments. That’s not because politicians don’t care about children being able to eat well; far from it. I think it’s because in this world of long-term talk and short-term action, improving children’s nutrition can feel so big. Investing in getting children eating well means setting the course right and sticking to it, for much more than the duration of any one parliament.
But isn’t that ok? Can’t we all agree – whatever our personal politics – that creating the conditions to help children grow up knowing how to eat well should be a cornerstone of a healthy, decent society? This is too serious, the problem is now too great, not to make sure those foundations are right.
What do I want from the next government? Whatever its makeup, I want to hear lots of noise from every government department about getting children eating well. And we’ll be there to make sure the volume’s up.
Linda Cregan is our Chief Executive Officer. Follow Linda on Twitter.