GPs should prescribe fruit and vegetables to people who have poor access to healthy food, a Government-commissioned review has recommended.
The National Food Strategy, independently led by businessman Henry Dimbleby, looked at how to improve healthy eating and said primary care networks (PCNs) in England should bid to design ‘Community Eatwell’ programmes that would also provide food-related education and social support.
The annual average cost to the Government to provide the programme would be £2 million over three years, it estimated.
Meanwhile, a tax should be applied to sugar and salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses, with some of the revenue – an estimated £2.9-£3.4bn a year- used to give fruit and vegetable to low-income families.
However the report acknowledged while the tax could help people in less affluent areas access healthy food, broader measures to improve the benefits system and tackle inequalities were not within its remit.
It said ‘ideally…the true cost of eating healthily should be calculated into benefits payments’.
There is a ‘widespread notion’ that giving low-income households extra money to spend on food is a ‘waste of time’, but the report noted this is a ‘complete myth’.
It said: ‘Studies in this country have shown that, as poorer families’ income goes up, they spend more on fruit, vegetables, fibre, oily fish and other foods rich in vitamins and minerals. And families actually cut their spending on alcohol and tobacco as their income rises.’
Other recommendations among the 14 made by the report include:
- Mandatory reporting by large companies of sales of healthy foods, including fruit and vegetables, as well as foods high in fat, sugar or salt
- New measures in schools to encourage teaching about food, including reinstating an A Level in food
- Extending the eligibility for free school meals
- Extending school holiday clubs that provide food and activities to children receiving free school meals
- Expanding a scheme for families with young children on low incomes that provides coupons for vitamins and vouchers for fruit and vegetables
The BMA has welcomed the recommendation to introduce a tax on salt and sugar, noting a tax on businesses is the ‘only option if we are to truly get to grips with the dangerous obesity crisis in this country’.
It said the report’s measures would help in ‘closing the unacceptable health gap between the rich and the poor’.
BMA board of science chair Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said: ‘The responsibility must not be placed on the individual alone, particularly when the food environment is so stacked against them. The brunt of responsibility lies with the Government and the junk food industry and we urge them to take ownership and remove the obstacles that are placing the health of so many at serious risk.’
BMA GP Committee executive team member and workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni added that while interventions to improve access to healthy food are welcome, GPs prescribing food will not solve the issue.
He said: ‘The suggestion that GPs could prescribe fresh fruit and veg will not wholly solve this very complex issue and may not provide the benefits to patients in the longer term. What is really needed is a national collaborative approach to tackling these important issues.’
Last month NHS England announced £20m of new funding for a new weight management GP enhanced service, which was later criticised by the BMA for being ‘fundamentally flawed’ on both a clinical and practical level.
It followed the publication of the Government’s obesity strategy last summer, which came as a PHE evidence review concluded that excess weight leads to a significantly higher risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19.