Tackling obesity: making healthy food fun

Written by Katie Palmer for IWA

Many factors influence the way we think and behave around food. We are bombarded by marketing messages through social media, television and cinema and we receive mixed messages from the media about the latest research into what we should or should not be eating. We are influenced by the food environment around us whether that be vending machines in leisure centres, the abundance of takeaways , buy-one-get-one-free offers in supermarkets or the school meals of our children. How we respond to these messages will depend on our level of education or knowledge, our intrinsic values, our income, how we are feeling and how those around us are behaving.

Making food choices is complex; the food system is complex. But policymakers need to gather evidence, and to understand and work with this complexity in a holistic way – the consequences if we fail to do this are potentially catastrophic for the environment as well as for our health. Many are arguing that the UK’s national obesity strategy is inadequate in this respect: the failure to address tighter controls for online marketing is an example. So if the national framework to influence obesity is lacking, what next?

The Sustainable Food City approach – establishing a city-wide cross-sector food partnership and developing a joint visionaims to operate at a local level to influence policy across the broad range of areas that food touches on in order to make healthy and sustainable food a defining characteristic of place.


Food Cardiff is one of the few UK cities to be awarded Bronze Sustainable Food City status to date. Its strength has been its ability to join up and influence work across sectors; across departments within Welsh Government; between Welsh Government, local government and public health; and linking ‘bottom up’ experience with ‘top down’ policymakers.   This can be illustrated through Food Cardiff’s experience of developing the School Holiday Enrichment Programme – Food and Fun.

It is an established fact that deprivation is linked to obesity – 28.5% of reception aged children living in the most deprived areas of Wales are overweight or obese compared to 22.2% in the least deprived (Childhood Measurement Programme, 2016). We know that those with lower incomes purchase foods higher in salt, saturated fat and sugar and foods lower in fibre and protein than those on higher incomes (Kantar for Welsh Government, 2016). We also know that, despite the significant progress being made, that 45% of 4/5yr olds in the most deprived quintile suffer dental decay versus 24.9% in the least deprived quintile (Picture of Oral Health, 2016 Cardiff University). We also know that accessing healthy affordable food is often a challenge in some of the most deprived parts of Wales.

However, what has not been recognised by policy makers until fairly recently is that school holidays present a significant additional financial pressure on families. Around 44,000 children in Cardiff can’t access their free school meal allocation during holidays and parents struggle with extra food costs and funding childcare. In Cardiff it was found the 35% of children attending a holiday club were skipping one or more meals on the days they were not attending. Sustainable Food Cities helped bring this issue into focus with the ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ campaign, which aimed tackle the root causes of food poverty; school holiday hunger was the issue that the Food Cardiff Partnership decided to tackle.


From the seed of an idea shaped by Food Cardiff to a national pilot within 18 months, the development of the multi award winning Food and Fun model is testament to true partnership working between the Cardiff and Vale local public health team, public health dieticians, Cardiff Council education catering and Sport Cardiff. The partnership has widened further, with the rollout of the pilot being coordinated by the Welsh Local Government Association and evaluated through Decipher.

The aim of Food and Fun is to capitalise on public sector assets (i.e. schools and staff) and build on existing programmes such as Nutrition Skills for Life and Making Every Contact Count to support families in deprived parts of Cardiff.  During Food and Fun, children received not only healthy meals but also enrichment activities such as nutrition skills education, daily sport, gardening, music, Love Food Hate Waste workshops, even 3D printing. Parents were invited to join in on the last day of each week, sharing a meal and learning through their children’s experience, taking the opportunity to take English classes or digital inclusion sessions and making new friendships whilst their children were occupied.

It isn’t known yet if Food and Fun will make a significant impact on health outcomes such as obesity. What we do know is that Food and Fun is putting the principles of the Future Generations Act into practice. By working with multiple partners across Wales it is touching on many of those key factors that influence diet (education, knowledge, food accessibility). With future support, Food and Fun has the potential to expand in reach and scope – for example by involving the Welsh Food industry in inspiring a new workforce and developing a more localised supply chain. It could also act as a tool in developing policy around the adverse childhood experiences which are known to influence unhealthy behaviours leading to outcomes like obesity.


The Future Generations Act provides the legislative framework to promote partnership working: the Sustainable Food Cities approach has demonstrated it is an effective mechanism for its delivery. With Brexit on the horizon, there is an opportunity in Wales to shape our food system differently to reduce these diet-related inequalities, but this will require all parties to be sat around the table to ensure the best interests for Wales’ economy, its health and its environment.

Katie Palmer is the Sustainable Food Cities Coordinator for Food Cardiff. She is also a member of the Wales Food and Drink Industry Board and the Wales Food Poverty Alliance. The Cardiff and Vale Public Health team won the Improving Health and Wellbeing and Reducing Inequalities category at the NHS Wales Awards 2016 for the Food and Fun School Holiday Enrichment Programme.

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