Over 50 per cent of the calories consumed in the UK come from ultra-processed foods. These are usually high in salt, fat, and sugar, mass-produced from the lowest quality ingredients, grown with the most damaging farming practices, and sold to the time- and money-poor. They are also the cause of an epidemic of preventable disease. Until the hidden health, environmental, and social costs of these foods are accounted for in their prices, fresh, unprocessed food, grown in the right way, is always going to cost more. Increasingly, real food is the preserve of the rich.
When I started growing 35 years ago, fresh veg was relatively cheap – and cooking from scratch, as Thatcher told us, was the cheapest way to eat. This is no longer the case. Veg is still relatively cheap to grow, but prices are typically multiplied eight times to pay for harvest, packing, distribution, and retail mark-up. Every time there is a cost-of-living crisis, consumption of fruit and veg drops further – falling by 7.8 per cent in 2008 and 7.5 per cent in the last year. For the poorest 10 per cent of people, living in ‘food deserts’, fresh vegetables are virtually unobtainable. My misgivings about the inaccessibility of organic veg initially led me to work with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, but food insecurity and poor diets are now much closer to home.
For many years, we have worked with local charities such as Food in Community to find a good home for surplus fruit and veg that makes it to Riverford’s packhouses. But there is another category of food waste: crops that go to waste in the field. Several times a year, one of our suppliers will experience an unexpected glut, usually caused by the weather. Prompted by our work with the anti-hunger charity FareShare South West last winter, which helped us rescue and redistribute a glut of brassicas, we have a plan to give more people good, organic food for free.
Now, when our customers refer a friend to Riverford, we will add to our fund for FareShare South West, as well as giving them each £15 to say thank-you. When there is a glut, we will use the fund to harvest and transport the crops, at no cost to growers. FareShare’s excellent distribution network will get the food to those in need. We would far rather use our marketing budget for this, and to reward you, than put all of it into Google or Facebook’s pockets. And across the year, this project will enable us to donate nearly 40,000 portions of organic fruit and veg. Find out more at riverford.co.uk/refer.