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Our environments, the physical and social structures that surround us as we grow up, shape us. They shape who we become as adults, how we live and even show love to our families. Our food environments shape us even more literally than that. They have a huge influence on what we eat, how we eat it and when we eat it.
As an urban health foundation, at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity we’re learning about how to positively change food environments to tackle childhood obesity. This includes big and small environments: from supermarkets to takeaways and from school canteens to home kitchens.
There’s a growing body of evidence showing that small improvements to ‘default’ options can make a profound difference. By making the default option the healthier, more affordable and accessible option we can improve the health of all children, regardless of where they grow up or their household income. This is crucial in addressing the ‘childhood obesity inequality gap’; childhood obesity is strongly linked to income, due to unequal access to food environments that enable nutritious diets.
It’s for these reasons that we’re supporting The Consumer Goods Forum’s Collaboration for Healthier Lives initiative, testing and learning what works to improve food retail environments in our two inner-city South London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark.
We joined the collaboration 18 months ago to support these national and international food manufacturers and retailers. Through this partnership we’ve provided a place to test interventions: two Boroughs with a total population of 600,000 is a good size to test innovations and it’s an area typical of other urban areas with high health and income inequality making it a good place to learn from in order to scale what works. We’ve provided deep insight about the population in conjunction with behavioural insights expertise and are supporting elements of the evaluation.
Being a partner on the collaboration over the last 18 months I’ve learnt what it really means to collaborate as a group of manufacturers and retailers. Our ambition for the group is to rapidly learn together about how to nudge healthier options in store, what works to both make an impact on health and retain commercial value, stopping but still sharing the things that don’t work, and scaling the things that do.
These companies are showing what it means to be ahead of the curve, ahead of regulation and responding to customer demands to support them to live healthier lives. They’re testing things like changes to in-store ranges, positioning and promotions of products – all guided by insights from behavioural science and aiming to make the healthier option the default.
But collaboration between companies in such a notoriously competitive industry is not without challenge. These companies are battling against huge pressures, internally and externally. With so many competing priorities, not least from their own shareholders, this kind of innovation is slow to push through and takes a huge amount of personal resilience from those doing the pushing. Testing in an agile way, on a relatively small scale like this isn’t how these companies are set-up to function. Planning for joint impact is particularly challenging when so much can’t be shared because of the Grocery Supply Code of Practice.
Despite these challenges, I find myself optimistic for what we’ll achieve with this group of front-runners. We’re already putting nudge theories to the test and learning what does and doesn’t work in a real-world setting. The companies are sharing these learnings with each other and more widely, something that I can’t help but think would have been unheard of 10 years ago. Our focus in a place means that the companies can all move further together and make a real impact on the community. The individuals involved have shown a genuine passion for wanting to push their own companies, and the industry as a whole forward.
Because of all this, I believe progress is possible, and of course there’s so much more that can and should be done to push this agenda further. I look forward to learning with the group until March 2020 and beyond.
This blog post was written and contributed by:
Portfolio Manager, Funding Team
Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity