Building food equality means investing in communities
High quality food is often seen as a luxury product. Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive to those feeding families on low incomes. Food that is grown without fertilisers and pesticides or that is produced to high animal welfare standards can be seen as unaffordable. Fresh, home cooked food with high production standards is known to be more nutritious, more ecologically regenerative and more socially just. It is better for people and the planet. So how do we find ourselves in a place in which so many people have no choice but to eat low quality food?
A Brief History of Food Prices
Wearing an economist’s hat you could simply put food prices down to food being a commodity subject to supply and demand. Food is a peculiar case, however, for a number of reasons. Those on high and low incomes need to eat a similar amount of food so how much food we need as a society is relatively consistent, regardless of how much is produced. How much is produced, however, will vary greatly year on year depending on weather and other external factors. So balancing supply and demand of food is a significant challenge. If you choose to wear this economist’s hat then it’s important to remember that price is something that emerges, not just because of supply and demand, but also because of historic trends, policies and investments
In much of the wealthy world food prices have been subject to huge interventions since WWII food shortages required a massive overhaul of farming. In Europe these subsidies incentivised production, which had the desired effect of creating a production boom. But there was more food than needed — butter lakes and wine mountains — and the excess supply pushed prices down. Over time the production subsidies shifted and reduced and farmers and distributors had to continue to be competitive. Those that could afford to expand did so, optimising costs through economies of scale. Smaller players were pushed out of the game as the market concentrated. Wealthy people became wealthier at the expense of environment and social equality.
To push back against this trend it became necessary to find ways to incentivise sustainable and ethical farming practices. Competing with the status quo optimised for scale, these sustainable practices have tended to require a higher level of farm labour and different logistics infrastructure and as such have a higher cost of production. Labels like organics and fairtrade were marketed to be of a higher quality in order to justify a higher selling price. At the same time erosion of the welfare state saw real incomes decrease for many. High quality food became an expensive product for those that are more affluent, contributing toward a reactive identity in those on low incomes that can’t afford such food.
The situation has become significantly worse in recent years with the rise of ‘ultra-processed foods’ — food that are high in fats, salts and sugars and low in fibre and micronutrients. These foods tend to be mass produced in industrial processes. Foods that are minimally processed, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses and whole grains, tend also to be the kinds of foods regarded as healthy, both in individual understanding and in nutritional science. Calorie for calorie, ultra-processed foods are around a third of the price of minimally processed foods (1, 2). Our food buying habits are about more than price. They are about systemic inequality.
Much More than Price
Encouraging a diet of high quality food requires much more than just getting the price right. Our decisions about what to eat are much less determined by our rational minds, and much more determined by habit and context. Our eating behaviour is reflective of not only the food we can access, but the cooking equipment and resources we have available, the skills and knowledge we have about cooking and the meaning, emotion and motivation that we ascribe to food and eating(3). Genuinely working towards food equality means addressing all of these factors, as well as price.
Access to equipment and resources is a key factor in exploring food equality. Circumstances vary greatly across income levels. Ready Healthy Eat(4) recognises that those in the most precarious positions often don’t have access to a kitchen. While gadgets like Nutribullets and garlic presses make cooking enjoyable to more affluent households, simply the basics can make a huge difference to others. The ‘Grow, Share, Cook’ programme in Plymouth ran cooking classes and soon realised that giving people a vegetable peeler and free pots (donated by the community) unlocked significant cooking ability. Resources such as access to transport are often overlooked. Those relying on public transport and those with mobility issues have more difficulty accessing and cooking minimally processed foods that tend to be weighty and bulky.
Skill in cooking frequently refers to specific preparation techniques, but there is much to cooking that is felt through our senses — embodied knowledge that can be difficult to put words to. The skill of chopping an onion, using a peeler and relating timing to your specific hob and pots are difficult to convey in recipes. The sights and sounds of cooking have, for some, been part of a lifelong environment. For those that did not have this growing up the learning curve to engaging with home cooked meals is enormous and goes far beyond what a recipe or cooking class can tell you. Learning these skills later in life can be hard, particularly if learning environments feel exclusive or unwelcoming in any subtle way.
The meaning, emotion and motivation we attach to food and cooking has deep roots. When faced with specific decisions about what food to buy or whether specific kitchen tools are wanted, these decisions will be made more from the experiences of our lives than anything else. What constitutes healthy or easy or fun varies greatly from person to person. This cannot be ignored if we are to make real progress on addressing food equality issues.
Taking these more holistic factors into account is the real challenge in building food equality. They require acute contextual understanding, respect and trust. They require personal relationships. Such a holistic approach requires that the solutions are designed by communities themselves.
Community food enterprises across the UK are actively learning and exploring ways to embody food equality into the fabric of their enterprises. In fact, community food enterprises are uniquely placed to address food equality issues because their success depends on being loved within their community. We know that food hubs across the Open Food Network community are doing amazing things in their local areas, creating diverse and innovative models that are finely tuned to place, people and context. In our upcoming work on food equality we will be drawing from the wisdom and experience of different members of the Open Food Network community and working with partners to understand the direct approaches that are making a real difference.
1. Jones, N. R., Conklin, A. I., Suhrcke, M., & Monsivais, P. (2014). The growing price gap between more and less healthy foods: analysis of a novel longitudinal UK dataset. PLoS One, 9(10), e109343
2. Wiggins, S., Keats, S., Shimokawa, S., Alberto, J., Hernández, V., & Claro, R. M. (2015). The rising cost of a healthy diet. Overseas Development Institute, London.
3. Van Kesteren, R & Evans, A 2020, ‘Cooking Without Thinking: How Understanding Cooking as a Practice can shed new light on inequalities in healthy eating’, Appetite, vol. 147, 104503.
4. Ready Healthy Eat is a project of the Real Farming Trust
This blog was originally published on the Open Food Network UK