Brighton & Hove: encouraging healthy food options in canteens, cafes and restaurants

Brighton & Hove launched a voluntary healthy choice scheme 14 years ago for cafes, restaurants and takeaways and is now making it mandatory for its commissioned catering services to follow good practice.

Brighton & Hove City Council has a long-track record of working with its local catering industry to encourage healthy meal and drinks options.

It launched a voluntary healthy choice scheme 14 years ago for cafes, restaurants and takeaways and is now making it mandatory for its commissioned catering services to follow good practice, not just on healthy eating but using sustainably sourced foods.

The scheme ensures that when people eat out – an estimated one in six meals are consumed away from home – they are able and encouraged to choose healthy options.

‘Using our influence on the high street’

Brighton and Hove’s Healthy Choice Award was launched in 2008 to encourage local eateries to adopt healthier practices. To take part, outlets had to adopt certain practices, including:

  • reducing the salt, fat and sugar content in foods
  • cooking with oils with a lower fat content
  • offering a range of portion sizes
  • reducing unprocessed ingredients
  • making sure there are no-sugar drinks available
  • offering free tap water.

In return outlets were supported with training and advice on how to change their menus and in return received a certificate and promotional materials to champion their healthy approach. It proved incredibly popular. By the time the pandemic hit, more than 140 different eateries were involved.

Public Health Consultant Katie Cuming said:

It was about using our influence and reach as a local council to ensure food businesses were offering healthy food.

“The pandemic has obviously now had an impact on the scheme. It has been difficult for the hospitality sector and we are now looking at how we can support them going forward and how we can adapt the award given we have seen a number of food businesses close down.

“But work like this is more important than ever – we know from the latest National Childhood Measurement Programme data that levels of obesity are rising. Ensuring the food environment encourages healthy choices is going to be a key part of tackling that.”

Making healthy food part of council contracts

While the council reviews the scheme, it has been able to develop its commitment to healthy eating through another programme, the Good Food Standards.

This launched in April 2021 and is aimed at all council-commissioned catering services. The standards are based on the Soil Association Food for Life Standards and so cover healthy eating as well as sustainable procurement. It means when catering contracts come up for renewal it is automatically written into them that they need to follow certain steps:

  • supporting the provision of healthy and sustainable food
  • requiring a proportion of ingredients to be from environmentally friendly and ethical systems, for example, Fair Trade
  • awarding caterers points for sourcing local produce, produce from the local region and from the UK
  • awarding caterers points for taking steps to make healthy eating easier for customers, such as by reducing salt and sugar and using wholegrain ingredients.

The strictest criteria are applied to contracts worth more than £75,000 a year and include the commitment that 75 per cent of dishes are freshly prepared and do not use unprocessed ingredients and artificial trans-fats.  

Dr Cuming said:

We have a significant footprint in terms of what we commission so this is a way to have an impact on the whole food chain and the options the customers are offered.

The standards have already been adopted by early years settings, primary schools and breakfast clubs that have council-commissioned catering contracts as well as takeaway outlets offering food at council-run events and festivals.

In the future the standards will also apply to settings such as leisure centres and café parks. Meanwhile, the council has made it a requirement for seafront lettings – it owns a number of buildings in this area of the city that are predominantly used by the hospitality industry.

As with the Healthy Choice Award, the council has a dedicated officer whose job it is to work with businesses to help them make their food healthy and sustainably sourced.

Healthy Food Project Officer Martina Gregori said:

I spend time with the businesses looking at what changes they can make. I can offer their staff nutritional training and we look at how food is promoted, making sure fruit and salad options are prominently displayed for example.

“We also go through the dishes. There is no point insisting on a healthier option if it does not work from a business sense. So with the early years catering service we spent a lot of time looking at the desserts.

“In the end we reduced the sugar content by around 30 per cent. Not by stopping offering desserts, but changing the way they were made. For example, flapjacks were a core dessert and popular. But what we did was take the sugar out and use sweet fruits like banana and apple.”

Contact details
Martina Gregori
Healthy Food Project Officer
Brighton & Hove City Council