Engaging businesses: the importance of business in childhood obesity

This note sets some thoughts on business engagement drawing on the experience of the Child Obesity Trailblazers.

Discussion on how to act to tackle childhood obesity inevitably focuses on the importance of a whole systems approach. It is important when thinking about the whole system in this context to consider the contribution of businesses and of the local authority services that have most contact with them including regulatory services. It is also important to remember that councillors often have business experience, sometimes in the food sector.

Business and the Childhood Obesity Trailblazers

There are several examples from the Trailblazers of how to engage businesses in practice.  The Pennine Lancashire trailblazer has looked to create a healthier food environment with a deep dive into hot food takeaways in the area. Birmingham and Pennine Lancashire have developed practical guidance for developers and planners to help support the creation of healthier food environments. The key lesson from the Trailblazer projects has been the value of involving stakeholders as early as possible in the process and ensuring flexible delivery models.

Business engagement: a councillor perspective

Councillor Shaun Turner is actively engaged in the Pennine Lancashire Childhood Obesity. This reflects his role as Cabinet member for health and wellbeing, but it also benefits from the fact that has owned a fish and chip restaurant since 1998. He is keen to ensure that the trailblazer does not fall into the trap that many obesity initiatives have fallen into by not collaborating with food businesses.

Cllr Turner stresses that restaurants such as his will only put options on their menus that customers want to eat. There must be a demand for healthy options from customers. To help to generate that demand accessible information must be available to businesses on the benefits of healthy options not just for customers but also the businesses themselves.

It is essential that people working on childhood obesity understand that owning and running food businesses is extremely hard work. Cllr Turner says that if they are to be taken seriously any initiatives to encourage healthy eating must not create additional workload or compromise profits. Government interventions often fail because they do not recognise this, they have not been the subject of meaningful consultation, and have not brought businesses on board. Action will only work if it integrates health objectives, business imperatives and the aspirations of the community and customers.

Cllr Turner believes that businesses are more likely to co-operate with healthy eating initiatives when they see that it is part of a wider social movement and change in consumer behaviour. National messaging must be clear and compelling to create a context in which local action can succeed. In his view this applies not just to restaurants, but to other parts of the food business such as retail and manufacture. If individual businesses are to act it must be as part of a national and local programme of activity.

Getting on the street

The best way to engage with small businesses is through face to face contact. The Nottinghamshire Trailblazer had begun to make progress with this but have had to put this on hold as a result of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. Even in the best of times this is a resource-intensive activity, at a time of continued pressure for local councils and their partners it is even more difficult. This highlights the importance of working closely with local authority services which have close contacts with businesses including environmental health and trading standards.

Top tips for engagement

  • Step into a business’ shoes and approach them in a way which reflects the pressures they face. Try to help them develop better relationships with their customers.
  • Build relationships with colleagues in council services which have close relationships with business, particularly environmental health, and trading standards.
  • Use the focus on health in the light of Covid-19 as a starting point for new conversations with businesses and their customers about healthy eating.