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For too long individuals have been blamed for having poor health. We have been hearing the same “eat less, move more” message for decades, yet obesity continues to rise. The best evidence shows that much of the responsibility for our bulging waistlines lies with the food environments that we live in rather than personal willpower.

Decision-making about our food environments—by both citizens and governments—is muddled by confusing or missing information. Big Food companies bombard us with junk food ads while subverting the obesity issue with clever marketing techniques like “halo advertising”—promoting products as healthy that are actually high in fat, salt or sugar.

Young people suffer from toxic food environments over the course of their lives. We need systems that recognise this and deliver a twin-track approach that provides clarity and promotes intergenerational fairness.

Decision-making about our food environments — by both citizens and governments — is muddled by confusing or missing information.

To help unmuddle us, we need to cut through the noise. Henry Dimbleby's 2021 National Food Strategy recommended that the government introduce mandatory reporting of food sales by larger companies, open for all to access. While some retailers are reporting voluntarily, and the government has promised to consult widely on this matter, we urgently need to take the next step: creating a comprehensive, uniform reporting system.

We must act on the insights provided by this data. We should set obligatory health targets for companies that lag behind, with fines for those that don't move quickly enough. To give industry time to adapt, these targets could ratchet up gradually over time. But the proceeds of these fines shouldn't just disappear into government coffers. They need to be used to help those who suffer most from the consequences of living in food deserts.

And here’s where we join the twin tracks: who better to decide how this money might be spent than young people who have experienced poor food environments and who will have to live the longest with the burden of ill health associated with them? We should redistribute the money raised by these fines to the different cities and regions of the UK where 18 to 24-year-olds can decide how they might be invested to improve their food environments.

This process would offer young people the opportunity to reimagine what healthy streets, screens and schools look like. It could also draw upon lessons from youth-led participatory budgeting exercises, such as those undertaken in North Ayrshire. If companies are to profit from selling unhealthy food, then younger generations should be compensated.

This article was originally published as part of Minister for the Future in partnership with Prospect. Illustrations by Ian Morris. You can read the original feature on the Prospect website.