Troubled by the gradual decline in household spending on vegetables, in October 2016 the Food Foundation brought together 20 people working in all different parts of the food system to explore the barriers to vegetable consumption and think about what the UK would look like if we were all eating more veg.
They said things like:
- ‘Sports would be sponsored by veg and not junk food.’
- ‘Fruit and veg products would be sold at school fundraisers instead of cake.’
- ‘There would be a whole range of veg-based snacks on offer.’
- ‘Veg would be more visible on the high streets – a shop selling food would always sell veg.’
- ‘We would have a craft veg revolution like we have had for beer.’
- ‘Our vegetable growers would be local celebrities and heroes.’
These ideas seem like pie in the sky, don’t they? And they serve to show how far our food environment has swung in favour of unhealthy food.
Vegetables – probably the only food we should be eating a lot more of, for both our health and the planet – are not making a comeback. This is despite very high levels of awareness of our ‘5 A Day’. Indeed, if you look at trends in food expenditure on veg, it has been gradually declining, and is no better than the 1970s. If you look at what we should be eating (captured in the Eatwell Guide), it amounts to about seven portions of fruit and veg a day. Assuming that half of these are veg, our analysis of the national data shows that 95% of children aged 11–16 years are not eating enough. Indeed one in four of these children are eating less than a portion of veg a day.
So we have a long way to go, but these statistics are hardly surprising when you look at our food environment:
- Promotions – meal deals rarely include veg snack options
- Products – ready meals are typically low in veg
- Advertising – 1.2% of advertising spend goes on veg
- Eating out – we used national data to show that for every three meals, we eat out we only get about half a portion of veg.
And then, of course, there is price – arguably the most important driver of food choices. Many people perceive vegetables to be too expensive. For many more, this is not just a perception, but an affordability problem. And now prices are going up. Based on the Consumer Price Index for December 2017, vegetable prices went up by more than 5% in 2017, putting healthy eating further out of reach for those on a low income.
And so, the journey to get to the point where veg is the most important part of a meal feels like a long one. Yes, veggie restaurants populated by hipsters are on the rise. Yes, Pret has successfully opened two ‘Veggie Prets’. But this is not the transformation of the food environment needed to really help us to eat well. We need a root-and-branch transformation of the food environment, and while veg may only be one part of a healthy diet, it helps us see the challenge ahead in stark relief!
In our favour is the fact that the levers of change are multiple, and rest in the hands of central government, devolved government, local and city authorities, large and small businesses; as well as ordinary citizens influencing local planning decisions; or indeed decisions on the cake sale at their kids’ school. While this means there is no magic bullet, it does mean we can get on and do things without waiting for the government to take action (though their leadership is a critical part of the mix).
But if we are to engender this leadership at multiple levels we need taste on our side. It won’t work if the alternatives taste and look bad: think wrinkled carrots in the local convenience store, or mushy brussels sprouts in the work canteen. If we are going to take people on the journey of transforming our food environment, they must enjoy it. So let’s keep good food that makes us happy front and centre.
Anna Taylor is Executive Director at the Food Foundation, an independent think tank that tackles the growing challenges facing the UK’s food system in the interests of the UK public