In Conversation with…. Barbara Crowther

In conversation with… is a series of blog posts where I’ll be talking to inspirational people working in the world of food policy.  

Today’s in conversation with features Barbara Crowther.

Barbara serves as the Campaign Manager for the Children’s Food Campaign at Sustain, an organisation dedicated to advocating for better food practice and policies.

As a passionate advocate for children’s rights to healthy and nutritious food, Barbara has been instrumental in driving initiatives that aim to improve the quality of school food and create a supportive food environment for children’s health and happiness.

Barbara is a core member of an Impact on Urban Health-funded early years nutrition advocacy group which I lead. The group focuses on ensuring that young children have access to the nutritious food they need for healthy development.

Barbara! It’s a busy month in the run-up to the election, so let’s start with a big question: What are the three children’s health policies you want to see implemented in the first 100 days of government from July 4th? 

Hey Dayna, talk about jumping straight in at the deep end of health policy! We’ve been busy tracking all the manifesto pledges in our Sustain election hub!  

Firstly, the new government must immediately act to keep the food advertising and promotions regulations on track for implementation in October 2025. There’s a technical consultation response and some guidance that need to be sorted urgently – most of the parties have said they’re committed to restricting junk food advertising, and of course we want them to go further on this in the longer term.  

Secondly, school food – the first 100 days must acknowledge the ongoing scandal of the £7,400 eligibility threshold for free meals, which excludes 900,000 children in poverty in England alone. The last government just said no, no, no to every appeal since the pandemic. If the new government is serious about child health and child poverty, then it must say ‘no’ to perpetuating this barbaric means-tested system, and ‘yes’ to healthy school food for all. The first spending review is the big opportunity to take the first step on that journey.  

Thirdly, more regulation incentivising companies to change their recipes to make them healthier. We’ve seen how well the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has done that, and it’s time to build on it now – it would be great to see a signal from the Treasury that they are actively exploring options, such as launching a new evidence review.  

Can I be cheeky and add a fourth? If Labour win, they’ve pledged to ban energy drinks sales to under-16s, so let’s get that one moving in the first 100 days too!  

Can you say more about your Recipe for Change campaign? 

Yes, we’re very excited to now have over 45 organisations in the Recipe for Change coalition, which is steered jointly by Sustain, Food Foundation, Obesity Health Alliance, British Heart Foundation and Action on Sugar, and happy to welcome more partners too! The idea is all about building on the success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, using fiscal levers with the food and drink industry to incentivise them to make healthier products, and remove salt and sugar from recipes.  

We’ve been working hard behind the scenes so far, collating evidence, working with some of the think tanks and academics. For example, an industry wide levy on salt and sugar could prevent up to 2 million cases of ill-health, including cardio-vascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, lung problems and some cancers. The National Food Strategy proposed that idea and we’re also looking at another option which might tax industry in relation to the next tier of really sugary or salty products like crisps, confectionery, cakes and biscuits, rather than every type of food and drink. As well as reducing sugar or salt levels, there’s the opportunity to raise millions or billions more in revenues that could fund investment in children’s health, such as healthy fruit and veg vouchers, school breakfasts, nursery food etc. We’re working with our coalition on the menu of programme options that might be funded by a new levy, especially listening to anti-poverty groups and young people. 

Barbara, you know my ongoing mission to get more political and advocacy focus on early years nutrition, can you talk to me more about how early years might feature in the Children’s Food Campaign this year? 

You’re right Dayna, early years have not been in the spotlight enough, and your own work on this is so helpful. Take an example: in the primary school where I’m a governor, we have a nursery and it’s simply perverse that Government funds Universal Infant Free School Meals for all our 5-7 year olds but not our 3-4 year olds, unless they meet the Free School Meal low- income criteria. We’re now including early years settings into our advocacy on healthy school food for all, and Sustain’s Good Food Local programme is benchmarking local authorities on this now in London and the North East too. Meanwhile, our parents’ manifesto called for action on early years food and drink. There’s loads of confusion over nutritional labelling of products targeted at very young children, and misleading health claims. We’ve previously done work on packaging and use of cartoon characters on sugary products, and we’re hoping to do more work with our parent ambassadors to delve into their own lived experience and the policies that would support them. We’d love to do more, but we all need resources and capacity to do it – there are so many children’s health fires to fight, but we’re keen to collaborate with others working in this space too. 

And turning to your other area of expertise (Barbara worked at The Fairtrade Foundation for over thirteen years), what should be top of mind for the government on the 4th of July regarding sustainability and farming in the UK? 

There are so many parallels between UK farming and global producers. A cocoa farmer in Cote d’Ivoire and a dairy farmer providing milk to the cheese industry in the UK get such a tiny proportion of the price we pay, and often not enough to support sustainable, climate resilient and living wages. It’s a shared issue of fairness in supply chains. I do hope a new government will reinvest back into global development and climate action more broadly. Top of mind for the new farming ministers must be a proper land use framework, ensuring the new ELMS (environmental land management system replacing old EU funding) provides investment in agro-ecological farming practices, ensuring fairer supply chains and protections for farmers through the Grocery Code, as well as a revamped horticulture strategy to stimulate the growing and consumption of more local, British fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses and legumes. 

On a slightly lighter note – what was the last book you read about food which changed the way you thought about the world?  

I loved Sitopia by Carolyn Steel, which delves into how food shapes our world – is part of our identity and belonging, our culture, our society – and in turn how food is also shaped by all those factors. It addresses the question of how we reconnect largely urban populations with the joys of growing, sharing and valuing food, and reimagines how communities can connect better around food, from field to fork.  

Lastly, what’s for dinner, please? 

Tonight, Dayna, it’ll be a cheeky Nando’s.  

Not really! You know, my partner was gobsmacked to find out I’d never been to one. So, then we had to go, and I was mostly bemused to find a reference to the sugar tax on their soft drinks menu! You can take the gal out of Sustain…  

Seriously, a big veggie and feta couscous salad is on the menu tonight. I’m a chuck-it-together kind of cook – whatever is in the fridge or needs eating up. I’m not really a recipe follower, more of a recipe changer!

1 thought on “In Conversation with…. Barbara Crowther”

  1. Zhara Armstrong

    Really enjoyed reading this blog. Very impressed that Barbara manages to fit in a school governor role into a very busy work life. I would love to see more controls on food labelling and health claims particularly on foods aimed at very young children. Lets hope the next government is listening and ready to act.

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