THE BLOG

Why We Need a Minister for Food

04/06/2013 17:48 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST

When the UK is faced with a crisis the government normally forms a task force, appoints a Minister to coordinate a response. It makes statements and the Cabinet keeps a close eye on progress towards a strategy to address the issue? Think of terrorism, flooding.

Yet successive governments have accepted an appalling growing crisis where thousands of people in the UK die an avoidable early death. The cause of that death is costing over £6billion annually in ill health before that death, thousands of children have been condemned to poor health or a lower IQ before they are even born, other people are struggling to afford enough eat enough even twice a day. Each government makes a few changes that affect the situation a little for the better for a moment until that falters in the face of unbridled market forces. Politically a food basket that grew cheaper and cheaper in relation to incomes was very popular. Few questioned that the basket was filling up with items of little or no nutritional value yet plenty of calories to cause an obesity crisis. Now it is a crisis and we need a national response.

There is no national food strategy. No minister. It takes a World War for a minister of food to be appointed. The misery and costs caused by an avoidably poor diet cry out for a joined up approach to the nation's food. Of course there have been some good initiatives from individual departments. The Department of Education has brought back cooking onto both primary and secondary school curriculum. It has also refined the national guidelines for school lunches. Yet the take up of free school lunches means that too many of the children most in need of a good lunch are not getting them. And the academies and free schools have no obligation to follow nutritional guidelines and think just how many schools are opting to become academies.

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs has a priority for food. They say: "The farming, food and drink sector is responsible for 3.5million jobs and 7% of the UK's overall economy. Making this sector more productive and competitive, particularly by increasing exports, will help economic growth." The Department has supported some excellent local iniatives on growing yet is hampered by its underlying priority.

The title of the Food Standards Agency suggests they worry about nutrition but the FSA very much re-orientated towards food safety issues. Their role temporary role in nutrition has been handed back to the Department of Health.

And that department is busy fire fighting the effects of a bad diet. It has neither the resources nor the reach to make the depth of changes that are needed.

The Department for Communities and Local Government could take a lead for people who want to get an allotment to try and grow their own vegetables and get exercise in the process. They know you may get one within the year or you may face a wait of decades.

They know you may have a vibrant local market fresh healthy produce is sold by local growers. But alternatively you may live in a food desert where your corner shop sells biscuits, booze and cigarettes. Their approach is to say that all this is up to your local council. But councils are faced with massive spending cuts.

The Department for Work and Pensions has a role to play for those on benefits. If the system has hiccups and problems a person cannot eat nothing day after day while the problem is sorted out. Food banks are valiantly filling that space but they are not the long term answer any more than workhouses were seen as answer to poverty by the 20th century.

The phrase joined up government is often used but rarely achieved. Food, so central to our health but also of prime importance culturally and socially needs to be centre stage politically. The plum post in Government should be the Minister of Food!