Who is responsible for the UK’s obesity crisis? Is it we as individuals? Or does responsibility ultimately rest with governments and food businesses?
How you respond to that question will to a certain extent depend on how important you believe the food environment is in shaping our choices (and weakening our resolve). Are we a product of our environment? Or are we masters of our own destiny?
This is a roundabout way of getting to the point of this blog which concerns a family trip I took to Legoland this Easter. With its colourful fairground rides and awe-inspiring Lego models Legoland is a fun family attraction, but when it comes to food the Windsor-based theme park is something of a desert for healthier choices. Food-to-go kiosks are littered around the site, almost all of which offer a variation on the same theme – ultra-processed convenience foods high in fat, salt and sugar. A sit-down all you can eat pizza and pasta restaurant offers a salad bar as part of its £18 (for adults) offering but this is a rare oasis of good nutrition in an otherwise barren healthy food landscape.
This doesn’t make Legoland an outlier within the sector. In a 2022 Soil Association survey of the food offered to children and families at the UK's most popular visitor attractions Legoland ranked 13th out of 16 for serving fresh, healthy, family-friendly food with the World Museum, The Ulster Museum and Drayton Manor all scoring lower than its paltry 32 out of 100. Even the number one ranked Eden Project registered a score of just 65.
The Soil Association’s secret diners liked the unlimited salad bar accompanying the pizza but criticised the “abundance of deep-fried food” across the Legoland site.
It’s only when you experience this kind of food environment as a customer that you get a true sense for how a culture of serving unhealthy, processed foods pervades certain out-of-home settings – and how many barriers have to be overcome in order to eat healthily.
We bounced from kiosk to kiosk looking for something passably healthy only to be confronted with myriad burgers, hot dogs, chicken, chips or sweet ‘treats’ like ice cream and confectionery. Meat is as pervasive as the junk food kiosks themselves while the few vegan options available are highly processed meat alternatives.
‘Why didn’t you just take a packed lunch?’ I hear you cry. Because to my mind eating out of home is part of the ‘big day out’ experience, especially when your kids have existed on a lunchtime diet of ‘boring’ sandwiches for the duration of the school holidays. My kids love the occasional hot dog or burger as much as the next omnivorous child but that doesn’t mean the opportunity to choose a healthier alternative should be removed almost entirely.
Those who believe responsibility for being overweight or obese starts and ends with the individual tend to argue that eating unhealthily is simply the product of bad personal choices. But what if the choice to eat healthily is so limited you have no alternative but to eat badly? What if positive nudges through education or (underfunded) government health campaigns are countered by a huge shove in the opposite direction whenever you are faced with choosing food outside of the home, whether in the form of junk food marketing and promotions or an absence of affordable, healthy options?
Part of the rationale for the government proposing to ban buy-one-get-one-free and other volume-based promotions in supermarkets was to change the food environment so that customers would find it easier to shop for healthier foods amid an abundance of choice. The fact ministers have since delayed the ban tells you all you need to know about their appetite for shaping the food environment more assertively. That means it will be left to businesses like Merlin Entertainments, which owns Legoland alongside numerous other UK and worldwide visitor attractions, to take some responsibility for the choice of food they offer their visitors.
Should they need inspiration they might look to the high street food-to-go market where you’ll see an ever-increasing variety of healthier options that are also convenient and appetising. Last year, Greggs hit a goal for 30% of the items on its menu to be healthier choices three years ahead of the original 2025 target. It’s done so by supplementing age-old favourites like steak bakes and sausage rolls with options such as feta and tomato pasta and a sweet potato bhaji and rice bowl. This rebalancing of the menu has not come at the expense of performance; Greggs sales grew by 23% in the latest financial year to reach £1.5bn.
If you don’t like the choice in Greggs you can of course go along the high street to Pret or Leon. Visitor attractions like Legoland, by contrast, enjoy the privilege of a captive market. It’s time such venues gave their customers back some agency by changing the food environment for the better.
A version of this blog was first published by Footprint magazine.
Main image from Pixabay