by | March 27, 2024 | Opinion

Equity for thought: the power of food environments

If you are reading this article, you are probably a lucky person. Presumably, you were born in a democracy and have access to a device with an internet connection. Did anyone ask you where you are from and from which family? I don’t think so. We cannot deny that there is a massive element of luck when it comes to our basic lifestyle. And since luck is random, when designing policies and shaping legislations, one should put on the veil of ignorance of John Rawls (1921-2002), cover their eyes and “detach” from our personal circumstances: you do not know where you will be born, you do not know from which family, which socioeconomic status, which house, which physical and mental skills, nor the health condition… 

Now, which policies would you put in place if you did not know anything at all about your personal situation?  

Eurostat (2022) shows that this exercise is not pure imagination, but also a probable scenario. Within the EU, almost 22% of adults live under the risk of poverty or social exclusion. This accounts for 95.3 million people. As foreseen, childhood numbers are not any better. 1 out of 4 kids live in poverty or social exclusion. This is the EU average – in some countries, such as Romania (40%), and Spain (33%) the reality is even more dramatic.  

And why am I, a person specialised in law and food, talking about equity? Well, first of all, because I have the profound conviction that when you are lucky enough to have it all, you must work for the common good, and particularly for those not seen, not heard, and not thought of. And second, because as largely proven, food shapes our realities, and so far, our food system is condemning vulnerable populations, not supporting them. What if food empowered people?  Two low-hanging fruits to make it possible: public procurement and food marketing.  

Public procurement, or the governmental groceries as I like to call it. EPHA is a proud core partner of the Buy Better Food Campaign, wonderfully led by ICLEI and its exceptional coordinator Jean-Marc Louvin. We advocate for the inclusion of minimum sustainability criteria with a doble aim. On one hand, to ensure that your money, my money and everyone’s money spent in taxes foster healthy populations on a sustainable planet – how could it be otherwise, right? And on the other hand, to provide a fair chance to vulnerable groups, and a fair “kick-off” to kids.  

Public canteens, especially in schools, should provide healthy and sustainable food so children in vulnerable situations have access to, at least, one healthy meal a day (imagine the “health shield” that could be created with the tandem of school canteens and the EU School Scheme). By providing nutritionally poor menus, we are putting the population at risk and dragging them towards unhealthy diets and diet-related non-communicable diseases. The Sustainable Food Systems Framework (SFSF), currently kept in the drawer in the European Commission, envisioned the empowerment of public procurement and its minimum sustainability criteria as a tool to foster healthy and sustainable food environments while fighting inequities. In EPHA we call the next Commission to publish the SFSF and ensure that food choices are healthy and sustainable by default.  

Food marketing also plays a key role in equity for two reasons. Firstly, food marketing is mostly unhealthy food marketing, with a prominent presence of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS), the so-called ultra-processed foods (UPF); and secondly, because this unhealthy food marketing is mainly targeted to low socioeconomic populations. The last report by Adfree Cities (2024) shows that there are six times more outdoors billboard of unhealthy foods in the poorest areas of England than in the richest. Therefore, by properly regulating unhealthy food marketing we protect vulnerable populations. The voluntary EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices, one of the few Farm to Fork initiatives that saw the light of the day (and my congratulations here), does nothing but delay proper legislative actions, while perpetuating the problem. What should proper legislation look like? Like this Blueprint Directive on the protection of children from the marketing of nutritionally poor food, flawlessly dreamt, thought and written by our dearest expert advisor Amandine Garde. 

We should not forget that while delaying effective legislation and not tackling the Commercial Determinants of Health (Gilmore 2023) – and the fact that health isn’t the priority for everyone, the damaged part of the population tends to be the same. The same living with a higher rate of non-communicable diseases, the same with limited or no access to healthcare systems, medicine, green areas, decent housing, clean air, and the list goes on… When it comes to health equity, inaction perpetuates the problem while condemning vulnerable populations.  

The European Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, must secure a Union “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” (art. 2 TEU), and legislate to ensure a healthy environment where we can develop as citizens, despite our socioeconomic status, and our luck.  

For further discussion, please don’t hesitate to contact me at It will be a pleasure!  

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