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Not so sweet on sugar...

Lambeth has just become the first council in the country to sign up to the Local Government Declaration on Sugar Reduction and Healthier Food. It’s a chance for the borough to build on almost a decade of hard work on the issue writes Jim Dickson Labour’s Cabinet Member for Healthier and Stronger Communities...

Few would be surprised to learn that overconsumption of foods high in sugar, fat and salt as well as swallowing  too many sugary drinks is a major contributor to some of the biggest causes of early deaths in Lambeth. In our borough, more than two in five children are either overweight or obese by the time they start secondary school and this often leads to serious health complications later in life, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  On average 11 to 18 year olds consume three times the recommended amount of sugar every day, much of this from sugar sweetened drinks.  And yet consumption of unhealthy food is actively promoted through advertising, sponsorship deals and price promotions locally and across the country.

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In the absence of clear leadership from the government (whose 2016 obesity strategy flunked many key challenges) it’s up to councils – with our responsibilities for public and environmental health, planning, leisure and recreation - to hold the ring on  action to promote healthy eating and sugar reduction. We have the ability to influence food and drink offers in our buildings, leisure centres, libraries and other commissioned services. We set standards for school meals and can encourage free breakfasts. We can ban new fast food outlets near schools as we have done in Lambeth. And by co-ordinating our policies with partners including in the health and third sectors we can help people achieve healthier diets and lifestyles.

In Lambeth, we’re well placed to pull all these threads together. We’ve had a ‘whole systems approach’ to addressing childhood obesity in place for some time and are the only council in the country to have shown a consistent reduction in overweight children at year 6 during the past 7 years. Promotion of breast feeding, a well-designed schools healthy weight programme and work with frontline staff to deliver messages on eating and lifestyles have -  according to a recent Public Health England evaluation - all played a key role in turning the tide on childhood obesity in Lambeth. Strong system leadership has also been crucial as our Food Flagship Partnership has started shaping a healthy food system for local residents, sustaining improvements in school meals, making heathy eating more affordable and expanding food growing across Lambeth including in GPs’ surgeries. Schemes such as the healthy eating voucher scheme and Norwood’s Community Shop have seen Lambeth named as London’s No1 borough for fighting food poverty.

After signing the Declaration on Sugar Reduction the next stage in our fight against obesity will see us start to embed a range of fresh priorities. We’ll be taking action on council advertising and sponsorship deals to ensure we’re not promoting sugary food and drinks as well as cracking down on vending machines selling unhealthy products working closely with our health and contracting partners.  We’ll be promoting healthy food at public events. Our work on breast feeding and healthy schools will be strengthened and deepened. We’ll be broadening our collaboration with retailers providing vouchers which can be exchanged for fresh fruit and vegetables, beyond our excellent partners at Brixton market.

Our young people have already developed key healthy eating messages as part of our social marketing campaign demonstrating a determination to turnaround the sugar juggernaut that seems in markedly short supply amongst ministers who are failing to act on the ‘obesogenic environment’ in which we live. Which perhaps amply illustrates the truth for Lambeth once more in the old proverb ‘that if you want something done well, then best do it yourself’. 

Cllr Jim Dickson, Cabinet Member for Healthier and Stronger Communities

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