The problem with our food system

Vote with your fork to save our broken food system | Food ...

What’s wrong with our food system? Quite a lot actually. And this is outlined in the The Broken Plate 2020 Report from the Food Foundation. To explain the issues, the report uses ten themes it calls ‘Metrics’ numbered from one to ten. These metrics are outlined below:

METRIC 1: ADVERTISING. Advertising and marketing mean that before we even decide what to eat, we’re influenced by mass media.

METRIC 2: PLACES TO BUY FOOD. We’re influenced by what’s available in our local area.

METRIC 3: AFFORDABILITY OF A HEALTHY DIET. When we decide what to buy, we’re influenced by what we can afford.

METRIC 4: WAGES.Perhaps ironically, the people who work in the food industry are typically on very low wages.

METRIC 5: FOOD PRICES.What we decide to buy is often influenced by price.

METRIC 6: PRODUCTS WITH TOO MUCH SUGAR. Our choices are influenced by the options available, not all of which are healthy.

METRIC 7: PRODUCTS WITH TOO LITTLE VEG.Many meal options available have a heavy impact on the environment as well as our health.

METRIC 8: CHILDHOOD OBESITY.Levels of childhood obesity are greatest in those living in the most deprived areas.

METRIC 9: CHILD GROWTH.Whether children reach their full height potential is influenced by how deprived their community is.

METRIC 10: DIABETES Adult health is also affected by our food environment, with complications from type 2 diabetes continuing to rise.

In 2019, almost £300 million was spent on advertising unhealthy food and drink, including soft drinks, confectionery and sweet and savoury snacks. Compare this with a mere £18 million on fruit and veg. Places to buy food, particularly fast food outlets tend to be more prevalent in deprived areas.

In investigating the affordability of a healthy diet, the report cited the findings of the Eatwell Guide. This is a UK Government funded initiative that provides guidance on what constitutes a well balanced diet. The estimated cost of following the Guide is £5.99 per day. The report split up peoples’ income into ten groups, with Group 1 on the lowest income. The following graph shows that people in the lowest income group are spending about a quarter of their income on food.

As the report notes:

There remains a huge difference in how affordable the government’s recommended diet is depending on how wealthy households are.

It isn’t just people who are on benefits that find it difficult to afford decent food, many people who are working are on a low income. Ironically it is those who work in the food industry, especially hospitality, that tend to be on the minimum wage. These people have been particularly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen hospitality shut down during lockdown periods. And with healthy food much more expensive than junk food, its difficult for people on a low income to have a decent diet:

The mean cost of more healthy foods in 2019 per 1000 kilocalories was £7.68, compared to £2.48 for less heathy foods.

Suffice to say, many of these foods are highly processed and loaded with high sugar and salt content. So how do people find out how much sugar and salt is in food? In 2013, the Department of Health launched the front of pack (FoP) nutrition ‘traffic light’ labeling system, with the familiar red, amber and green colour-coding.

Is the food traffic light labelling system useful? | Patient

Poor diet can have direct consequences for health. In 2020 levels of obesity in children (4 – 6 years) across the most deprived areas in the UK averaged 13.5%, compared to just 9% in the least deprived areas.

There has also been a significant rise in type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity and deprivation. According to Diabetes UK, there are a few key actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of getting type 2 diabetes:

  • Lose weight
  • Reduce sugar intake
  • Cut down on red and processed meat
  • And just generally eat a more balanced diet

Is anything being done to improve the situation? In Scotland you can apply for Best Start Food cards if you’re on a low income. Check out the website for eligibility.

Glasgow City Council published their Glasgow City Food Plan consultation, which closed in December 2020. Locavore has published a detailed response to the plan, which outlines several recommendations, in particular calling for a fair and sustainable food system:

Food poverty is an important issue and a barrier to accessing good food, but the real issue here is the economic system creating a situation in which people cannot afford something they should be able to – it’s a system failure.

Clearly this is a work in progress. And as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic its important that we work towards ensuring that everyone has access to good quality nutritious food that doesn’t cost the earth.

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