Child obesity - an epidemic of inequality

Since 1982, child obesity in the United Kingdom has doubled; 10 per cent of six-year-olds and 20 per cent of 15-year-olds are now affected. This is urgent cause for public concern: obesity is disabling and often the precursor of serious illness, including heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and respiratory diseases. In 2002, for the first time, children in the UK were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, normally an adult disease.

The "usual suspects" behind this childhood epidemic include snacking, supersizing of portions, too little physical activity and increased consumption of sugary drinks, fast food and sweets. But another cause, less often discussed, is poverty. There is a confirmed link between childhood obesity and deprivation. An authoritative National Audit Office report shows that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be fat.

The "fat gap" between rich and poor is the result of food poverty - a term increasingly used to explain why those on low incomes often cannot provide a healthy diet for their children.

Despite government measures such as the Five-a-Day programme to increase fruit and vegetable intake, extending the Welfare Food Scheme, and pilot schemes to increase physical activity, there is still a critical failure to recognise the link between food poverty and obesity. What is the point of urging people to eat healthy foods if they are not available locally or are too expensive? Reform of Welfare Food is commendable, but will the proposed £2.80 worth of fruit and vegetables per week make a sufficient dent in the problem?

And while the Five-a-Day programme has virtually no budget how can it compete with the near £40bn spent globally each year by the food industry on promoting food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt, much of it directed at children (roughly 95 per cent of the food advertising during children's TV programming is for such foods)? This is particularly painful for parents on low incomes, who cannot afford to buy food that their children might not eat, and therefore buy the well-promoted, popular yet unhealthy food.

There is insufficient recognition, too, of the link between obesity and the decline of local shops in low-income areas. If a neighbourhood is served only by chippies and fried chicken restaurants, obesity rates will be higher.

We are sitting on a health time bomb. To defuse it, we must look at the "fat gap". Why are poor children fatter than rich ones? It is far better to pay now - increasing support to the poor and standing up to the food industry - than pay much more later.

The writer works on the food poverty project at Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. E-mail: courtney@sustainweb.org