Covid 19 and the Future of Public Health Nutrition (PHN): a call to action!

Sharon Noonan-Gunning, Registered Dietitian, PhD.

Health and social care crises are rightly at the forefront of critique about the government’s lack of preparation for an inevitable pandemic such as Covid 19. Nutrition is an important and integral part of public health. Alongside the restructuring of public health, PHN has steadily moved away from being a strategic sector of state responsibility. What it actually is, has been almost forgotten. We argue that its meaning should be redefined and its purpose – as re-centred and fully resourced by the state – should be campaigned for.  This means we have to reclaim public health nutrition from private companies – quasi or multinational – from charities. It means all PHN workers should be paid, from directors of public health to community emergency food aid volunteers, according to trade union negotiated national agreements including grading scheme.   

Public health nutrition according to the UK Nutrition Society is the application of nutrition and physical activity to the promotion of good health, the primary prevention of diet-related illness of groups, communities, and populations (not individuals)’. FIR includes PHN’s role in the cultural, social and economic wellbeing of populations. Further, it is transdisciplinary and not elitist, exclusive. e.g. it includes unpaid community food workers on the estates, food bank workers etc.

We use the terms ‘community’ and ‘social’ nutrition to encompass any environment where food is a public service and as a social collective practice e.g. its preparation and eating. This includes range of environments covering all ages: nurseries, children centres, schools, hospitals & health-care systems, care homes & social care environments, meals-on-wheels & meal-delivery systems, social services organisations, food banks, prisons, community workplaces and all types community food projects. We ‘name’ all of this within a clear discipline/field of PHN because ‘food and health’ has become so fragmented and populated by charities, social enterprises etc. The big NGOs and third sector organisations (TSOs) brilliantly focus on food poverty and insecurity and campaign for universal free school meals, meals on wheels. We advocate the whole public nutrition system itself should be strategically led and funded by central government with the meaningful democratic involvement of grassroots communities and workplaces. Only government has the resources and therefore ultimate responsibility for population health.

While defending PHN as central to public health policy we believe it should be re-established in a different way that is fully democratic way involving grassroots.  In this Covid crisis, there is a further danger that due to the crisis in local government funding, public health will face more redundancies, privatisation and charitisation. In London, who gets PHN is a post code lottery for example, involving differences in budget allocations, prioritising of universal free school meals (including NRPF) and interventions of powerful charities. The charities are being pushed heavily. Although they are committed and passionate about tackling food poverty and inequalities, they cannot solve either. It is the responsibility of central and local government. How will London PHN emerge from this crisis – greater privatisation, charitisation, fragmentation and inequalities or fighting for a strategic and democratic approach to tackling food and health inequalities?

What FIR is doing:

1. Allyson Pollack has a bill to re-establish the NHS. We are looking at this to see how it includes PHN. 

2.We are carrying out research that focuses on grassroots experiences to explore the current state and capacity of PHN from a range of views and settings.

3. Opening a discussion on food and health democracy and public health nutrition

If you can get involved please contact or phone Sharon on 07941 733372.

Stay well and get organised!

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