Leading article: Free food for thought

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The Independent Online

We live in an age where food has become a fetish. Fads and phobias, allergies and anorexia, diets and dress size, dominate our public and private discourse. But there are some areas where the facts speak incontrovertibly. One of them is the impact that what a mother eats has on her unborn child.

Nearly one in 12 babies in England and Wales is born underweight, mostly because their growth in the womb has been retarded by a lack of nutrients. A mother's diet can have a profound effect on the health of a child yet to be born. There is a greater chance of dying in infancy, of heart problems, diabetes, nerve and lung disease later in life, and a greater danger of impaired cognitive development.

It is right that the Government should seek to address this. But whether the plan to give all expectant mothers a one-off payment of £120 in the seventh month of pregnancy – to spend on fresh fruit and vegetables – will work is another matter.

The idea bristles with difficulties. For a start, a mother needs to be eating healthily far earlier than seven months into pregnancy. Then the grant is to be paid to middle-class families as well as poorer mothers, rather than being means-tested or targeted, which would apparently be administratively too difficult. And though the payment is to be conditional on a mother meeting with a health professional for pregnancy dietary advice, there is no requirement for the grant to be spent on fresh veg or fruit smoothies. It could go on chocolate, chips or even cigarettes. One way round this might be to introduce the grant in the form of veg vouchers, though there would be nothing to prevent the resolutely unhealthy from selling them to buy something else.

This week, Sir Derek Wanless, a former government adviser on the NHS, will publish a major report that will criticise the government's lack of progress on tackling the increasingly unhealthy lifestyles – the poor eating habits, lack of exercise and increasingly sedentary way of life – which have led to Britain's growing obesity epidemic. In his determination to do something about the yawning health divide between the nation's rich and poor, Gordon Brown is right to dismiss fears about the "nanny state". But there must be better ways of spending £80m of public money every year than this idea, which carries with it the whiff of tokenism. Perhaps the scheme pioneered in America, which is currently being piloted in Somerset, in which nurses are sent into deprived communities to support women who need the most NHS help but who are least likely to ask for it, offers a better chance of success. A little bolder thinking is needed.