Child of the North: Physical activity, obesity and food insecurity

By Dr Marie Bryant, University of York; Dr Alison Fildes and Professor Jason Halford, University of Leeds; Professor Caroyln Summerbell, Durham University; Dr Calum Webb, The University of Sheffield.

Examining physical activity levels, food intake, and levels of food insecurity, and the prevalence of obesity in children living in the North of England since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, these outcomes in children were generally worse in the North compared with the South of England (except for some inner parts of London).
These geographical differences can, in part, be explained by relative levels of deprivation. But that’s not the full picture. Even after adjusting these outcomes for deprivation, a substantial divide remains, suggesting more deep-seated structural issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the daily lives of children. Among the most significant changes were opportunities to be physically active, and access to food and different types of food.

Given that these factors determine growth and body fatness, it is important to ascertain whether the pandemic has also had an impact on levels of childhood obesity. Sadly, the evidence suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated North-South inequalities in physical activity levels, food insecurity, and obesity, for children.

While the legacy of these changes is yet to play out, there is real risk of short-term impacts translating to longer-term effects on health, and widening inequalities. There is some good news from initiatives tackling physical activity and food insecurity, helping to ‘level up’ children in the North, but there is little confidence in the sustainability of these efforts. If no child is to be left behind, plans must be upscaled and sustained.

Policy response and the need for whole system actions

The North-South variation in the prevalence of childhood obesity in England is certainly fuelled by poverty. Policies that aim to reduce food poverty and food insecurity, as outlined above, and investment in early years services are key to realising the Government’s ambition to halve the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2030, whilst also reducing health inequalities. It isn’t that the existing Government Obesity Plan is wrong – all of the strategies within it are sensible, evidence-based, and theoretically effective. However, they rely on an individual’s ability and will to make healthier lifestyle choices – including what food and drink they buy and consume – and on their access to appropriate health services in their local area.

A recent study sampling local authority obesity programmes found that the overwhelming focus was on changing individual behaviours rather than changing the environments in which people live. Alone, therefore, the Obesity Plan is likely to have limited impact.

The research suggests that reducing child poverty is a pre requisite to reversing and reducing the overall prevalence of, and inequalities in, childhood obesity across England. Beyond this, we need a whole system approach, with a broader set of initiatives targeting, in particular, educational settings, town planning and industry. Strategies must ensure access to health services according to need, with an appropriate balance of prevention and management of childhood obesity within emerging integrated care systems.

The elephant in the room is what this would cost. In the challenges of operating in a pandemic recovery economy, will local authorities and industry have the financial resource and political will to invest in tackling inequalities in childhood obesity in England, above other pressing priorities?

This Blog post is taken as an extract from the N8 Research Partnership Report – Child of the North: Building a fairer future after Covid.

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Policy Hub POSTNotes set for publication following three-month fellowships

Two POSTNotes produced by the Food Systems Policy Hub’s Policy Fellows covering soil management and genome editing are to be published in the new year following the completion of the second fellowship scheme between N8 AgriFood and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

In October David Rapley from the University of Sheffield and Megan Tresise from the University of Leeds began a three-month fellowship at POST, working in Westminster to produce a POSTnote from start to finish. Their work has included scoping the topic, conducting interviews with senior stakeholders from across academia, government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, then drafting, editing and finalising the document.

The fellowships were open to applications from doctoral students registered at one of the N8 Universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) working in an area of agrifood research, and marked the second collaboration between the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub and POST in offering the placements following the inaugural joint fellowship in 2020.

Ahead of the publication of David and Megan’s POSTnotes in the new year, we caught up with them to find out more about their work:

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Six N8 projects feature in new report outlining policy messages for food security

The findings from six research programmes, brought together under N8 AgriFood, have fed into a new report outlining key policy recommendations to help to identify and develop interventions to strengthen UK food security.

The ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’ (GFS FSR) research programme has released its Programme Report, outlining multiple approaches to enhancing resilience.

The Report contains general recommendations as well as tailored messages for a range of stakeholders in government, agri-food businesses, NGOs, and investment and research sectors.

The major £14.5 million, five year research programme, launched in 2016 by the Global Food Security programme, comprised 13 interdisciplinary research projects based in UK institutions. Six of these programmes were established from bids put together by colleagues working collaboratively across N8 AgriFood and the N8 universities; IKnowFood, PIG Sustain, Resilient Dairy, Rurban, Re- Phokus and SEEGSLIP.

Summarising five years of research, the report also contains messages based on findings by each of the 13 Projects and focused on specific stakeholders. These messages are intended to lead to further exploration and actions by those aiming to enhance food system resilience.

One of the key messages from the report was that discussions on how to enhance food system resilience need to be framed by the answers to four key questions:

o Where do we need to increase resilience?

o What do we need to build resilience against?

o From whose perspective is enhanced resilience needed?

o Over what time period is enhanced resilience needed?

The report also contained important messages for specific stakeholders including:

  • Government policy formulation should take a whole food system approach across government departments and agencies and spatial, temporal and jurisdictional levels
  • Industry should proactively address the negative relationship between food price on one hand, and food system sustainability and resilience on the other
  • NGOs covering multiple agenda should play a more substantial, evidence-based role in holding government and business to account
  • Finance and investment sectors should include short and long-term financial stress testing of their portfolios to a wide range of exposures
  • Researchers and funders will have an increasingly important role in helping to enhance the resilience of the UK food system. 

Dr Riaz Bhunnoo, Director of the Global Food Security programme, said: “The recent pandemic has underlined the importance of a resilient food system. With climate change coming down the line, it is more important than ever that we drive interdisciplinary research on food system resilience into policy and practice. The FSR programme has been instrumental in driving this agenda forward.”

The full report can be viewed at

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