The publication of life expectancy data always makes for sobering reading and the latest release from the ONS is no exception. The most depressing finding is what the ONS describes as “a clear North South divide” in life expectancy within the UK best captured in the statistic that males at birth in Richmond-upon-Thames have a disability-free life expectancy of 69.9 years – a massive 13.5 years longer than males born in Liverpool.
The issue of inequality is set to be a key political battleground in the run up to next year’s general election with Labour planning to make tackling poverty a central theme of its campaign. It’s also high on the public’s agenda with inequality now 5th on Ipsos Mori’s list of the most important issues facing Britain, its highest position since the market research company started capturing such information in 1998.
Food can prove a very useful prism through which to consider the issue of inequality in the UK. At a time when almost a million people are regularly visiting food banks, a majority of the population can still afford to throw away a staggering £12bn of food a year, the equivalent of £480 per household. Meanwhile, the greater burden of obesity-related diseases falls on low-income consumers who purchase a higher proportion of processed foods while purchases of fruit and vegetables increase with income.
Political efforts to tackle inequality tend to focus on micro interventions that encourage people to make better choices without changing the environment or the political framework that shapes their behavior, or to put it more bluntly we invest in dragging the bodies out of the river downstream rather than stopping them from falling in in the first place. In food this means a focus on soft policies such as product reformulation and better labelling that may have a minor impact around the fringes but do nothing to change the conditions that determine what we eat. Meanwhile, public health campaigns that nudge people towards making better choices are dwarfed in funding by corporate marketing campaigns that use sophisticated techniques to push consumption of junk food products. The upshot is that targeted interventions and behavioural change initiatives are unlikely to ever effect serious change at a population level.
If governments really wanted to tackle inequalities they would take a step back and look to change the social conditions and environment that shape people’s choices in the first place. In food this could mean ensuring low income consumers have greater access to healthy foods through redistributive policies and a more socially-minded planning framework (research into food deserts has shown that cheap and varied food is only accessible to those who have private transport of are able to pay the costs of public transport); that those living in social housing have access to adequate cooking facilities and utensils; and that all children are taught cookery skills as part of the national curriculum.
But even a concerted national effort to tackle the social determinants of poor health would require an enabling macro-economic model in order to succeed. This would mean a shift away from a dominant neoliberal model focused on delivering economic growth towards a model that values social as well as economic development.
It would be folly to expect a fundamental shift away from the capitalist system any time soon, such is the power held by global financial institutions and corporations, but a shift to what the Labour party is framing as a responsible capitalism, which stands up for the weak against the powerful, is surely not beyond the realms of possibility?
In their book ‘The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that economic growth and increases in average income have ceased to contribute much to wellbeing in rich countries and that social and public health issues such as obesity, mental illness and drug use increase with widening income gaps.
The implication is that equality is a political aim worth striving for. But without a radical shift in current thinking it’s likely to be a goal that remains unfulfilled.