Urban Food Deserts: cost, convenience or something much more complex?

Dr Ali Khavandi's commentary in the Guardian newspaper

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‘ 5-a-day? It’s none a day in Britain’s urban food deserts was an excellent article by Louise Tickle and I was really pleased to be asked to comment. The link was actually Rich Osborne from Fresh Range who I have been talking to on-and-off for the last few years and is equally passionate about the links between good food and health. Rich and the team at Fresh Range are doing some really exciting stuff around Bath and Bristol bringing together local, quality food producers and offering the customer a single and convenient online market place. 

For me the subject of the article was especially timely since Dara Mohammadi and I have an article in the Observer Food Monthly (with recipes!) based around the subject of how ‘healthy eating’ and ‘healthy food’ have become associated with cost.

Examples of healthy diets from around the world, including the famous Mediterranean diet, are usually the diets of the poor. Simple, seasonal plant-based meals which are limited in quantity and made from scratch using basic local ingredients. In fact the poor have historically been ingenious at turning humble ingredients into now famous dishes which are delicious and nourishing – Bouillabaisse (a fish stew made form the small fish that the fisherman could not sell) and Pot-au-feu (inexpensive cuts of meat which are slow braised with vegetables) to give two French examples.

These back-to-basic home made foods have now become expensive artisan products like sourdough bread. In fact bread is a perfect illustration. Making bread is very cheap but labour intensive and perhaps this is a bigger part of a more complex problem that is not just about cost. Our expectations regarding food and convenience have changed with a little help from the food industry. Many people in the UK would consider it unacceptable to spend time mixing, kneading and proofing bread as a necessity (rather than a hobby) when you can buy an industrially produced loaf. It’s clear which is healthier.

The issue is certainly complex but cost and accessibility may not be the actual barriers to healthy eating when you consider expectations around finding ingredients and preparing meals. One effective message from the food industry is that you do not have the time (or skills) to do it yourself and so why not let them do it better and cheaper for you. The problem is that after a while people believe that a fortified processed loaf is better than time consuming home made bread – they forget how to make the bread themselves and have a shift in expectations in the amount of time investment which is acceptable to have bread on the table.

And now to the final part of the cycle. Consuming low-quality processed bread causes people to develop symptoms like bloating. Someone in the celebrity media world blames Gluten (whereas in the majority it’s got nothing to do with Gluten). The food industry reacts by producing designer Gluten-Free bread. This is expensive but justified as a special healthy alternative. So perpetuates the vicious cycle that ‘healthy’ foods are expensive and inaccessible, when the most basic, high-quality and healthiest option is the cheapest’.

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