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According to new research, vegetable sales are down by nine percent compared to last year. This matches a new survey by YouGov, in which 26% of participants said they had bought fewer fresh vegetables due to financial pressures.
This drop follows the same pattern as the financial crash of 2008 where fresh vegetable consumption fell by almost eight percent, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
Vegetables: an unaffordable luxury
According to Rob Percival, head of food and health policy at the Soil Association, “When budgets are squeezed, some families opt for foods they believe to be energy-dense or filling, reducing their purchase of fresh vegetables. These purchasing patterns are encouraged by the abundance of ultra-processed foods on retail shelves. Unfortunately, such dietary shifts are likely to worsen health outcomes in the long run.”
Rebecca Tobi, senior business and investor engagement manager at the Food Foundation, agreed, as she added, “Calorie for calorie, vegetables cost more than less healthy foods, which means that for many families looking for cheap and filling ways to feed themselves and their families, veg can be seen as an unaffordable luxury.
“Vegetables can also sometimes be seen as a riskier purchase – why spend a lot on veg if there’s a chance your children won’t eat it and it’ll end up in the bin? We need to change both how affordable veg are in relation to other foods, and how appealing they are to make sure we don’t see the UK’s low levels of veg consumption drop yet further.”
With budgets squeezed, these decisions are only more prolific. Lucy Antal, food justice lead at Feedback Global, explained, “In recent months, the cost of food generally has jumped by an average of 10%. This might seem a small amount, but in real terms, this equates to 18% for less well-paid households due to the poverty premium which means that they often live in less well-served areas for fresh food and lack the means to travel to access it elsewhere.
“The cost of energy is another factor. Anecdotal evidence is coming in from food banks and food pantries that users are refusing to take raw vegetables as they are worried about the costs they would incur in the preparation and cooking of those vegetables. In an ironic reversal of previous times, fruit, vegetables and ‘proper’ bread have become the luxury items in a shopping basket.”
In fact, she added that “If a median paid household on the Living Wage were to follow the EatWell plate guidance at the moment, it would use up 45% of the household income. This isn’t practical or possible, so we have families and individuals relying on less healthy options to stretch their budgets and fill their stomachs.”
With urgent action required to help families afford healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, campaigners argue that the government needs to step in.
As Rebecca explained, “The government have, to date, focused mostly on energy price relief measures, but food prices and levels of food insecurity are both rising at a frightening rate. One of the most effective and targeted actions would be for the government to bolster the Healthy Start and Free School Meal programmes – both schemes that already exist and provide a nutritional safety net for low-income children.
“Expanding the eligibility criteria of the FSM scheme, for example, would ensure that an additional 800,000 children living in poverty would be able to get at least one warm, nutritious meal a day.”
Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the children’s food campaign at Sustain, added, “We’re calling on the Government to increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers for low-income parents of babies and very young children, and also expand eligibility to receive these to all families on Universal Credit. We could also provide a nutritional safety net for children by expanding free school meals, as the evidence shows a healthy hot meal at lunchtime will include two or three portions of fruit and vegetables, whilst only 1-2% of packed lunches currently meet school food standards.”
This is something Lucy also strongly agreed with, as she added, “More than ever, we need policies and commitments to long-term solutions to address this problem. A starting point would be to create free school meals for all children, irrespective of family income or location.
“Reduce stigma, improve the quality of the food, make it about social value and nutrition, not shareholder profit and bring in locally produced, locally sourced products that will help support local economies.”
Rebecca also pointed out, “The government could work with supermarkets and restaurants to rebalance the cost of healthy vs less healthy food – currently healthier foods cost three times as much per 1,000 calories than less healthy foods.
According to Barbara, “Expanding these schemes would not only support hard-hit working families to access more fruit and vegetables but could also boost sales for British farmers and producers, enabling them to stay more resilient during the cost-of-living crisis.”
How can indies help?
While government help would provide some much-needed relief, indies can use their access to local, seasonal and healthy produce to help.
Speaking to Speciality Food, Lucy suggested, “Use your voices to campaign for better access to food for everyone. Adopt a local school or community organisation and provide fresh food at cost to enable savings to be passed on to households that might be struggling. Have a wonky veg box a bit cheaper.
“Publicise and champion seasonal and locally grown produce with recipes and information on how to cook certain things. Allow shoppers to buy in smaller quantities or conversely in larger e.g., a full tray of tomatoes or a sack of potatoes for economies of scale.
“Think about a mobile/street-facing service that can go into areas where the shops aren’t. Can you also think about where any surplus/overripe/short-dated food could go to be repurposed? There are plenty of community cooking spaces that would welcome extra fresh food to use in their kitchens.”
Rebecca added, “All retailers taking Mastercard are able to accept Healthy Start payments – funds given to low-income families and pregnant women with children under four to spend on fruit, veg, pulses and milk. Independent retailers could look to support the scheme by advertising it in their shops as awareness of the scheme is currently low.
“Championing seasonal fruit and veg and providing customers with ideas for using them is a great way to promote fruit and veg.”