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“Food policy as doing.” An example from the 1970s from Finland of how to solve a complex social and economic problem with a system approach.


Thank you to Adam Kremeia for sharing with me this Guardian Long Read about the failing food systems in the UK and for pointing me to the experience from Northern Karelia in Finland.

The article is titled We need to break the junk food cycle’: how to fix Britain’s failing food system. It is a very concrete example of a complex and interconnected problem that requires a systems approach (including the political will) to try to solve it. The example from Northern Karelia in Finland from the 1970s is a concrete example of how a systemic approach to finding solutions works in practice.

“Recent English obesity policies have spoken endlessly of “action” to help people eat healthier diets, but what they deliver, often as not, is another raft of patronising diet information leaflets, such as the bright yellow Change4Life diet pamphlets handed out in schools and GP surgeries. (One uninspiring gem: “If you’re shopping for packaged snacks for your children, try sticking to 100 calorie snacks.”)”

“For three decades, Theis and White found, successive governments have repeatedly proposed “similar or identical policies” and then not done anything to see them through. What counts as an obesity policy could be anything from a plan of action to a statement of intent. Whichever party has been in charge, the most popular policies have been ones placing high demands on individuals to make personal changes (such as the 5 a day campaign) rather than meaningful reforms such as restricting the sale of unhealthy foods, or subsidising fruits and vegetables to make them more affordable. Most of the ideas for structural interventions – for example, that the food industry should reformulate its unhealthiest products – were voluntary. Unsurprisingly, compliance was not high. “

“Decades of research show that obesity is determined to a large extent by environmental factors such as socioeconomic inequality, the rise of ultra-processed food and the way that cities are built to facilitate car use. But policymakers of England have stayed wedded to the idea that weight is all about personal responsibility: just eat less and move more.”

“But it’s also worth remembering that food cultures are not static, and just sometimes food policy can succeed in changing cultural attitudes for the better. In the 1970s, the region of North Karelia in Finland had some of the worst rates of fatal heart disease in the world. A visionary young public health official called Pekka Puska implemented a whole range of measures to address cardiovascular health, all at once. Puska worked with women’s groups to encourage people to cook new versions of traditional dishes, with more vegetables and less meat. He supported dairy farmers in diverting some of their land from butter to berries. He persuaded local sausage producers to take out some of the fat and replace it with mushrooms. And he recruited an army of local people to act as advocates for the new diet to their friends and neighbours. Puska also instigated smoke-free workplaces. By 2012, cardiovascular mortality among men in the region had dropped by 80%. Policy experts still debate which of Puska’s various measures made the greatest difference, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. This was food policy as doing, not talking, and it worked.

A good food policy is one that actually makes it beyond the announcement and gets carried out, with adjustments along the way for anything that doesn’t work.”

Photo credit: Robin Stickel on Unsplash

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