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#BTEditorial – Make healthy food affordable and accessible

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Ongoing public discussion on the school nutrition policy, the recent revelations of progress on the planned introduction of the salt tax and the recent introduction of the NCD Commission have been robust, as it should be, as we search for much-needed solutions to the health crisis on our hands.

For some, the national fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is not as sexy as debating whether rising crime is a public health issue, but the issue is no less deadly.

All of us at some time have grappled with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues battling diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cancer, hypertension or other conditions.

Information sourced from the Heart and Stroke Foundation shows that NCDs are responsible for eight out of 10 deaths in Barbados, with approximately 66 per cent of the population being either overweight or obese. A projected 39 per cent of the population will be living with obesity, with an economic burden of 4.6 per cent of national Gross Domestic Product by 2035, according to the World Obesity Atlas 2023. Alarmingly, the current percentage of overweight or obese children is 31 per cent.

Simply put, Barbadians are not well and the cost of health care is high.

There are several factors contributing to our poor health, but none more so than our plates.

The plethora of cheap, available processed foods laden with sugar and salt is driving us fast to our graves, regardless of age. Intervention in this area is therefore critical. Hence, there is a good basis for all to support the recent introduction of the school nutrition policy which seeks to reduce our children’s exposure to unhealthy meals and drinks for a large portion of the day. Though not perfect or a magic bullet to reverse the onslaught of disease, it is a start.

We note with interest, recent words from Minister of State in the Ministry of Health Dr Sonia Browne and Senior Medical Officer Dr Arthur Phillips that the Government is exploring the introduction of a National Nutrition Policy.

Dr Phillips explained that the development of that policy which is intended to have a similar effect on the wider population has already started. He explained that it would provide guidelines for the private and public sector and speak to a range of issues including food production, accessibility, affordability, availability and marketing, among other areas.

“In short, the national nutrition policy will look at issues outside of the schools that relate to nutrition and ensure that we have a healthy setting and that people are able to eat well in Barbados,” he said.

And so, we await the details but urge authorities to seriously take action on a critical factor we must admit has been missing – addressing the cost of healthy foods. Food, in general, in Barbados is expensive and probably takes up the bulk of our disposable income.

On Monday, Professor Justin Robinson urged – as have several Barbadians in recent weeks – that the Government move to make healthy food affordable in the same way it has been seeking to make unhealthy foods and drinks more expensive.

He said: “There is an ongoing debate – do you make it expensive to be unhealthy versus making it cheap to be healthy; expensive to be unhealthy [regarding] the sweet drink tax, the proposed salt tax and some aspects of the national nutrition policy. There is a fair bit of evidence that shows taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks to reduce their consumption. There is less evidence on taxes on salt cause I guess very few countries have tried it. . .

“But on the flip side, some in Barbados are asking what are the policies to make it cheaper to be healthy. And one could argue that that may be a missing element in our policy mix in Barbados – that the policy initiatives to date have focused on making it expensive to be unhealthy and there hasn’t been sufficient focus on making it cheap to be healthy.”

Surely this is a reasonable suggestion for Government. It’s one thing to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables but quite another to help them actually afford them.

In today’s economic crunch, households who are forced to cut back may have little to no choice but to resort to less healthy options. Help them make the right choice.

We suggest that authorities explore a realistic food policy that should reduce and rebalance the bombardment of unhealthy food while increasing access to nutritious foods; and further any revenue raised in the process should go towards ensuring that nutritious food is made more affordable, accessible and appealing to those with the lowest incomes.

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