What do brown bread, low fat yogurt and oily fish have in common?

They are all recommended as healthy foods to include in your diet by the UK Government’s Eatwell Guide. It was published in 2016 by the UK Government and contains their key messages for a healthy diet. The image below shows the main food groups, with the proportions indicating how much of your diet should be made up from each:

Eat Well Guide Copyright Crown Copyright 2016 used under OGL v3.0
“The Eatwell Guide” Source: Public Health England. Crown Copyright 2018, used under OGL v3.0 (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/ )

The guide aims to tackle diet-related health problems in the UK, especially high rates of overweight and obesity, with around 2/3 of adults in Scotland and England either overweight or obese.

Tips in the guide focus on consumer choice of what to eat, suggesting swapping to wholewheat pasta, skimmed milk and lean meat. This implies that all it takes to be healthier is to change shopping habits. But does this take issues of access into account?

Access to food is closely related to food security. Food security is a complex concept with many interrelated dimensions. It can be understood as a state where all people at all times have access to safe and nutritious food. The opposite of this is food insecurity, which can mean not enough food (hunger) or not enough of the right kind of food (malnutrition). The idea of ‘everyday food insecurity’ describes the state of having uncertainty of food security from one day to the next. And there are indications that this is a very real issue in the UK.

8comparing yogurt2
Comparing nutritional value of yogurts: low fat and low sugar yogurts are recommended.

Research by The Food Foundation found that approximately 14.4 million households in the UK may be unable to afford the healthy diet set out in the Eatwell Guide.

For 26.9% of households, following the Guide would mean spending more than a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs on food. This doesn’t affect everyone equally – household on the lowest incomes would need to spend close to 30%; while highest income households would need to spend 12%. This indicates that despite national food security, there are lots of people in everyday food insecurity, unable to afford the diet considered necessary for health. What are the reasons for this? What consequences does it have?

As The Food Foundation showed, households on the lowest incomes are worst affected.

10comparing bread
Comparing bread: This wholemeal loaf has higher sugar and fat, but more fibre.

In recent years the cost of food has risen, while household income has decreased. This squeezes household budgets, making more people vulnerable to food insecurity. The use of emergency food banks across the UK has risen, providing a clear indication that this situation has been worsening.

While the Eatwell Guide suggests asking “your butcher for a leaner cut of meat”, most people get their food from supermarkets. However these are not evenly distributed[1] with low-income areas often suffering from a lack of supermarkets, which adds the cost of transport and time to the price of food. In addition, healthy foods are often more expensive than unhealthy, which makes the suggestions in the Eatwell Guide harder to follow, as it means spending more on food.

13mince 5%
Comparing mince: The Guide recommends leaner meat, but this is more expensive. The same size pack of mince with 20% fat costs £2.98.

This evidence shows that, despite eating healthily being presented in the Eatwell Guide as a simple choice to make while shopping, there are structural barriers meaning not everyone can make these choices. Everyday food insecurity causes many problems. Eating a poor diet has negative impacts on health, which can have long-term consequences, especially for children. There are high rates of overweight and obesity and a rise in malnutrition-related hospital admissions. At the same time, everyday food insecurity causes stress and anxiety, and people who access food through emergency food banks often feel ashamed and embarrassed.

17eat well basket edited
My attempt to shop according to the Eatwell Guide would cost £15.72. The small punnet of blueberries costs the same as the large packet of potatoes.

What can be done about this? The Right to Food is widely recognised as a Human Right. But currently the UK Government does not even measure levels of food insecurity. Action is needed. For the first time last year the Scottish government included food insecurity questions in the Scottish Health Survey. The recently published report shows 8% of adults reported experiencing food insecurity, with higher rates for single parents (21%) and single adults under 65 (20%). This is clearly related to income, ranging from 18% in most deprived areas to 3% in the least. Other areas of UK should now do the same so we can get a picture of the situation across the whole country.

Parallel to this, we need support for community-based organisations that work with people not just to address the need for a good, affordable diet, but also wider issues relating to poverty, like social isolation and lack of confidence. For example, in North East Scotland, Community Food Initiatives North East provide emergency food relief as well as a wide-range of other projects including a community growing project garden, financial and debt advice, and a community training kitchen. They receive funding from the EU and the Scottish Government, showing recognition of the role these community focused organisations can play in reducing food insecurity.

The evidence shows that there are currently millions of households in the UK who are in everyday food insecurity, unable to afford to follow the Eatwell Guide. This means they are unable to afford a diet that is specifically recommended for good health, with long-term consequences. It’s time for the government to start taking this issue seriously. They need to also make systematic changes so that everyone has sustainable access enough safe, nutritious food. For if the UK as a country is considered food secure, the government have no excuse for not making this a priority.

 

[1] Blake, M (2018) Landscape and the politics of food justice in Zeunert, J. and T. Waterman (eds)  The Routlege Handbook of landscape and food.  Routledge, London and New York.