THE government is to launch a new drive to help struggling households stay healthy amid growing concern that the cost of living crisis is forcing many to turn to cheap processed food.
Health chiefs are looking at the link between the rising price of food and other goods and services, and increased incidence of long-term health conditions.
Early this year, chief executive of charity Caring Cooks Yvonne Corbin expressed concern about the rising cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, saying that people might struggle to maintain a healthy diet.
The charity, which supports Islanders struggling to feed their families, said it was facing its biggest challenges yet with waiting lists currently the longest they’ve ever been.
‘There is an absolute and increasing need for support with food in Jersey,’ said Mrs Corbin.
She added that she was seeing people from all walks of life choosing to use a microwave instead of an oven due to wanting to save on electricity bills.
It has also been widely reported that more and more Islanders are turning to food banks because of the soaring cost of food. The most recent inflation figures revealed that the cost of food had risen by 15.8% compared with 12 months earlier.
A report focusing on ‘multi-morbidity’ (or patients with more than one long-term health condition), released earlier this week by Public Health, revealed that about 13% of Islanders were living with multiple conditions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure – a rise of 1% from the previous year.
Professor Peter Bradley, Jersey’s director of Public Health, said that the findings presented a ‘turning point for us to reverse that trend’.
He said that although the surge in the cost of living was not behind the recent rise in the number of long-term conditions – as these would have built up over decades – higher food costs could now worsen the problem by forcing people to turn to less healthy options.
Professor Bradley said his department was committed to taking action in the Public Health Strategy, which is due to be released in the coming months.
The strategy will incorporate ideas gathered from Islanders during Jersey’s Big Health and Wellbeing Conversation, a consultation held in the autumn of 2022.
The suggestions included that the government should work to lessen the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, which has ‘resulted in low-income families accessing only poor-quality’ processed foods.
Respondents also proposed removing GST from food, reducing the cost of joining gyms and other sports facilities and building more cycle lanes.
Professor Bradley said that the findings from the multiple-morbidity report would also now inform the strategy.
According to the report, high blood pressure and obesity were the most commonly co-occurring conditions, present in 4,380 Islanders, with the most commonly occurring triad of conditions high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, present in 1,125 people.
‘We base the public health strategy on what is most common in our population and we will be looking at this data to decide on our priorities,’ Professor Bradley said.
‘In the latter half of 2023, we are expecting to build on the services that Islanders can already access through a GP, as we work to prevent these conditions starting for people.
‘These are more common as people get older, and it’s about preventing them, delaying the onset, working to make sure that if a person has higher blood pressure that we don’t see further health effects from that.’
He said: ‘If we do nothing, then we will just see increasing rates of these conditions and that is consistent with what we see across the developed world.’
He added: ‘We have an opportunity now to do something about it. It is a turning point for us to reverse that trend, and Jersey is committed to taking action.
‘In the upcoming strategy, we will look at trying to make a practical plan for how we can improve people’s access to healthy food and a healthier lifestyle.’
Professor Bradley continued: ‘The data we are seeing has not necessarily been caused by the cost-of-living crisis and generally these conditions build up over decades, but the cost of living makes it more difficult for people to access a healthier lifestyle and to eat healthier.
‘With higher costs of food, it is often the case that less healthy food is easier to access. We need to do something to help our Islanders lead healthier lifestyles.’
Public Health also announced earlier this month that it would be renewing the Island’s food and nutrition strategy.
The Obesity, Diet and Physical Activity Report 2021 showed that at the end of that year, one in four reception-aged children were overweight or obese and one in three Year 6 pupils were overweight.
The proportion of young people who ate five portions of fruit and vegetables decreased with age, from 38% in Year 4 to 18% in Year 12.
Around four out of five young people were not meeting the UK NHS recommended levels for physical activity.
‘Our strategy will look right across the lifespan,’ Professor Bradley said, ‘but promoting health in children is an area of potential interest because maintaining healthy weight during your childhood means you’ll more likely be able to do that through your adult life. It’s an obvious place to start.’