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Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson 136x180I was born in Montreal in 1948. My parents were English; they moved to North America to escape the European post-war austerities. I grew up in the suburbs just outside New York City. Some of my earliest memories are of the diversity of cultures and experiences that the city had to offer, and I loved trips to England and France as a child. So I went back to Montreal for university, and then moved to England in 1971.

While still at University, by chance I was invited to work with Myron Winick and Pedro Rosso in the sub-sub-basement of New York Hospital to investigate nutritional factors that turned cellular growth on and off. This was pre-genomics days, and our research by today’s standards was pretty crude. It involved measuring the DNA and RNA content of the harvested organs of malnourished rats. I quickly realised this was not my first choice of career. But it awakened an interest in better public nutrition. We were trying to find out what controlled cellular division and growth so we could turn growth back on in malnourished children living in Jamaica. Instead, I learned that politics, education and income inequality were at the heart of problem.

So I went on to do an MSc and then a PhD in nutrition in England (with a short interval in Wales as a hippie with my own smallholding). Most parents want to do the best by their children and to help them grow up into healthy and happy adults. I see nutrition and healthy ways of life as central to that development. But increasingly, either lack of resources or commercial pressures mean that the healthier choices are not always available. I see academic research working hand in hand with government as the way forward. Together they can create the right physical and social environments and the commercial markets to sustain good health. Then commercial interests will follow. But this will happen only if we make our research accessible to a wide range of stakeholders (not just government and not just commerce). And for that to happen, we need to be thinking more strategically about how we market our evidence of the need for change and understand what drives choice at government, local and individual level.

My first proper job was as a researcher investigating causes of poor growth in families living in poverty in London. In 1977, I went to work at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge to explore the validity of the findings from the National Food Survey (this had been running since the 1940s but no one had ever thought to question the validity of the measurements being made). In 1980, I moved to the newly formed MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit under the late Donald Acheson where I learned my epidemiology and statistics, and in 1985 joined the staff at King’s College London to teach nutritional epidemiology and research methods. I was still interested in issues around child growth and development and health inequalities, and these have really shaped my research career.

I am a Reader in Public Health Nutrition at King’s College London, and since 2006 have been the Director of Research and Nutrition for the School Food Trust (a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Children, Schools and Families). Our task is to improve school food in England and to increase the number of pupils eating a school lunch every day (currently around 40 per cent). The research team has a key role in monitoring take up and the quality of school meals and providing guidance to caterers, parents, pupils, schools, and to local, regional and national government. We believe that an integrated ‘whole school”approach to healthy food in the dining room and in the curriculum is central to tackling childhood overweight and obesity. We also carry out research (for example, showing how better food at lunchtime helps to improve behaviour and attainment) and work to stimulate others to carry out research in this area, because we know the findings are central to convincing head teachers and parents that healthy school food is important.