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After fruit and vegetable shortages across supermarkets earlier this year, and financial pressures making fresh produce less affordable, action needs to be taken on ensuring everyone has access to healthy food.
According to research in October, vegetable sales were down by 9% compared to the previous year. This matches a new survey by YouGov, in which 26% of participants said they had bought fewer fresh vegetables due to financial pressures.
The importance of access to healthy food
According to Orla Delargy, head of public affairs at Sustain, “Food insecurity is on the rise, particularly amongst families with children. In the last year alone, the number of children living in food insecure households has doubled to 3.7 million.
“We need a decent nutritional safety net within our benefits system, as well as in schools, hospitals and meals on wheels. The NHS spends £6.5 billion annually on treatments for health conditions related to poor diets, and excess consumption of calories, salt, sugar and saturated fats.”
As Lucy Antal, food justice lead at Feedback Global, put it, “Healthy food is the building block of life. Ensuring access to healthy food should not be a postcode lottery but part of the everyday environment. Access isn’t just about availability, it’s also about food being adequate, affordable and appropriate for everyone’s needs.”
How independent shops can help customers eat better
While supermarkets are tied into huge supply chains and inflationary prices from imported produce, independents such as farm shops have the benefit of agile systems that avoid these issues.
Lucy told Speciality Food that indies should, “Embrace the alternative food networks that are springing up, and source direct from your local producer/grower; re-educate your customer with signposting and information about your suppliers; ensure that you are supporting fair and sustainable food by asking questions about the sourcing of the food you sell.
“Retailers could also suggest budget-friendly healthy recipes to their customers, based on products they have in stock.
“Think about the placing of products within your store, make a point of highlighting the healthier options; train staff to recommend products; stock seasonal fruits and vegetables; consider selling ‘wonky’ produce at a lower cost alternative or offer a zero-waste ‘mystery’ bag at a set price.
Orla also suggested that retailers could redeem Healthy Start vouchers. “Families in Greater Manchester, for example, can now use their Healthy Start card to buy fresh fruit and vegetables at award-winning Bury Market. The new initiative aims to help boost market footfall and improve access to healthy food among beneficiaries of the Healthy Start scheme, typically pregnant women and families from low-income backgrounds.
“Most Healthy Start card transactions take place in supermarkets but the local food partnership wants to make the local market appealing to beneficiaries of this scheme, so more money stays in the local economy.”
Making food security a priority
According to Lucy, the government should start by acknowledging that food security, “Is a matter of national security and needs a strategic focus to ensure we have a thriving food supply that means healthy food is easily accessible to everyone, irrespective of income or location.
“If people don’t have an adequate supply of healthy fresh food in their immediate environment, it is unrealistic to expect health outcomes to change.”
These changes can come through legislation that benefits everyone on the supply chain, from farm to fork. As Orla told Speciality Food, “There are lots of actions that government can take including: providing decent wages and benefits, extending free school meals to more children and supporting UK farmers to transition to nature and climate friendly farming.
“It could use their power as food buyers to support sustainable British suppliers and set core standards for domestic and imported food alike.
“Government could also work to increase the opportunities for food traded through smaller, collaborative and diverse enterprises – including Real Bread bakeries, Better Food Traders, neighbourhood markets, social enterprises and other better routes to market – that champion accessible healthy and sustainable food.”