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Food policy, strategy and action plans: do they fit together in Wales?

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In Wales we have strategy, but where is Food Policy and do we need a Food and Health Policy Council to make it effective?

Given that the devolution agenda is evolving, now is the time to revisit the question: how is policy driving strategy. Food Policy has been developed in the context of ‘Well Being in Wales (2003), which arose from ‘Better Health Better Wales (1998). This is becoming a major social and economic issue with rapidly rising obesity, elder malnutrition and childrens food being constantly on the agenda – as it has not been previously. Can most if not all be dealt with under the new Government of Wales Act 2006?

A main requirement is co-operation and partnership working between people and policies, backed up by legislative action and fiscal measures. This action will need to span public and private sectors and involve retail food, food service operators, food producers, industry, education, local and national government, researchers, voluntary and community organisations.
Currently, these issues cover so many strands and so many departments across different levels of government at the Wales, UK and EU levels that no one takes overall responsibility for the development and accountability for an issue that affects everyone and concerns the health of the nation. It will require co-operation and partnership working advocated by ‘Making the Connections’ and the Beecham Review in terms of citizen centred service delivery and public engagement, which can be obtained through a Food and Health Policy Council.
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) Strategic Plan 2005 – 2010 includes dietary health and a UK Nutrition Strategy. This is influenced by the Department of Health’s White Paper and the setting of English obesity targets. Obesity targets and industry promotion of food to children does not feature in Welsh policy making, although school nurses in at least two local authorities monitor the weight of primary pupils. This needs to be extended.
The FSA Wales draft ‘Nutrition Strategy’ consultation (2002) includes a policy dimension. WFA’s response emphasised the experience of the Finnish Karelia Project. “Today, the world is more open and international than ever; lifestyles and commercial products cross borders easily. Thus nutrition policy established in one country can hardly be expected to work in a vacuum. International influences, good or bad, must be considered, and international co-operation must be sought” (Puska, 1999). Can we help drive this type of strategy through a Food and Health Policy Council in Wales?
By 2003 the ‘Nutrition Strategy’ had become a joint Assembly/FSA ‘Food and Wellbeing – reducing healthy inequalities’ strategy with a number organisations seeking to move this forward. What was the significance of the adding ‘reducing healthy inequalities’? This work is now being reviewed.
Citizenship should be at the heart of the strategy. But who is bringing all this work together to make sure that we are moving in the same direction at local and national levels in Wales, and what is the connection with ‘local’ Health, Social Care and Wellbeing strategy?
With citizen centred policies it would not require celebrity action to agree school meal nutrient standard in 2006, combined with a great deal of unhelpful publicity, when this was actively advocated in 2000. When WFA and the Wales WI proposed mandating food education within the Design and Technology curriculum, the government maintained the status quo in 2000 when change was required. The situation has now changed and the public are asking for this to be taken out of Design & Technology and for practical food education related to nutritional health to be made a reality
The strong point made to the Beecham Review (2006) was that Wales does not achieve the ‘resource transfers’ across public sector catering, in a way that occurs with social care that is essential if we are to be effective and use scarce public resources. Why is this? Welsh strategy and action plans mostly come from a synthesis of academic research worked on by ‘expert’ advisory committees. Generalist civil servants then subsequently seek to move this forward within their own respective remits. Do we still lack expertise and central co-ordination in which Wales has been historically weak?
In certain respects, Wales still appears very dependent on the English Health and Education Departments. ‘Food in Schools’ is one example; food education within the national curriculum is another. In these two main policy areas, the main drivers are ‘Designed for Life’ and ‘Learning Country 2’. There is a need for convergence between health and education policy for health improvement. The former makes passing reference to ‘Corporate Standards’ and the ‘Healthy School Network’, but not to growing malnutrition in an ageing population and the need for an NHS standards for ‘nutrition, fluids and nutritional care’ for vulnerable people – young and old.
 It is only by having a Food and Health Policy Council on which all aspects of food policy are represented shall we obtain a long term strategy that will assist the Assembly Government in the development of a coherent policy that will gain the support of the public in dealing with the long term problems for which we must find solutions. With more explicit intergovernmental co-operation and action we can effectively tackle the rapidly growing and serious challenge of avoidable food related diseases. An underlying theme must be public participation, in order that food policy in Wales is meaningful and will bring the results we require and value for money spent.
With Food Policy there is clear interdependence between devolved and non-devolved issues and this must be recognised in the next phase. It will take a degree of vision, determination and courage in Wales to develop the concept of an overall policy, strategy and action plans. Now is the time for change with the current review of the ‘Food and Well Being’ strategy: out of which could emerge ‘Better Food, Better Health Better Wales’ assisted by the formation of a Food and Health Policy Council and active participation that is required to bring results.
Comments welcomed