Devon County Council's use of weight management service to tackle childhood obesity

A decision to sign up to the Healthy Weight Declaration has acted as a catalyst for action on obesity for Devon County Council and other partners and businesses across the county.

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The challenge

In 2013, the public health team reviewed the council’s weight management service. There was a growing recognition that current provision could only ever reach a small proportion of residents, when the scale of the problem was much larger (nearly one in three children leaves primary school with excess weight).

Recognising the influence of the wider environment on healthy weight, the council’s public health team were keen to adopt a new, population-based approach. In November 2019, Devon became the first council in the South West to sign the Food Active Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight to promote healthy weight through improved food and drink provision.

Richard Merrifield, Advanced Public Health Practitioner at Devon County Council, said: “The Declaration presented an opportunity for us to lead by example and to reinvigorate our engagement with residents, partners and the food industry.”

The approach

Before signing the document, the council sought to find out which of its core pledges were most relevant to the Devon population. The survey was promoted via the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) and 420 responses were received from across the county.

One interesting finding was that parents appeared more concerned about the impact of sugary food and drink on their children’s teeth than on their child’s weight. This suggested messages framed around oral health may have greater impact and the findings informed the council’s subsequent work.

A steering group was established and five elected members were appointed as champions of the Declaration.  Using the survey results, data on the prevalence of obesity and excess weight and oral health data, three areas of action were pinpointed;

  • make water freely available across all council sites
  • work with the food businesses to encourage responsible retailing e.g. a ban on energy drink sales to under 18.
  • rewarding performance and behaviour without using unhealthy foods, removing junk food advertising and promotion to children at schools

The impact

Public health is working closely with colleagues in Trading Standards to promote and encourage take-up of the food businesses pledges.

A “mystery shop” exercise testing if supermarkets were adhering to a voluntary pledge to ban sales of energy drinks to children, found only one of the 14 stores made the sale. While the outcome was overwhelmingly positive, the council is aware that to get greater impact, work has to be undertaken with many smaller retailers who have not signed up to the voluntary ban.

The council is also exploring with two social enterprises, Food and Drink Devon and Taste of the West, whether it can use a form of audited kite mark to encourage businesses to offer healthier food choices. 

As part of this work, environmental health officers from the districts will survey proprietors about their understanding and experience of product reformulation (i.e. using less fat, salt and sugar in produce) and the barriers to undertaking it.

Meanwhile, internal caterers in Devon County Council are to become Declaration pledge partners. In council shops, the volume of snacks with fewer than 99 calories has been increased products that are lower in fat and sugar are showcased.

Free water is available across council campuses and the price of bottled water in its retail outlets has been reduced, making it the cheapest drink in the shops. Most high sugar drinks have been excluded.  council caterers are also reviewing staff canteen menus.

Since September, 17 schools have signed up to Sugar Smart, the most in any one year.

Aligned to the healthy weight declaration and building on the NCMP survey findings, the council promoted National Smiles Month in 2019 with social media messaging around oral health and Sugar Smart.  The 2020 campaign will also include events and promotion at Children’s Centres and libraries

Lessons learned

The council plans to create a short promotional video to showcase the good practice around the county to help the public and its workforce understand the purpose of the Healthy Weight Declaration.

Sharing survey findings has proved important in starting conversations, giving context and providing a baseline for evaluation going forward.

Working with external organisations such as Food and Drink Devon and Taste of the West has also given the council an invaluable insight into food business.

How will the approach be sustained?

Five elected members are champions of the Declaration, helping to raise its profile across Devon. Oversight by the Health and Wellbeing Board provides accountability.

The wider council sign up means support from trading standards, environmental health, waste management, children services and other colleagues.

Cllr Roger Croad, Cabinet member for Public Health, said: “We all know how difficult it is to make the right choices when we are surrounded by unhealthy food, the wrong advertising messages and when sugary drinks are cheaper than water. I am proud that Devon County Council are making this commitment to improve the healthy, lower sugar food options available to residents in Devon and working with food businesses to achieve this.”


Richard Merrifield, Advanced Public Health Practitioner at Devon County Council

[email protected]