We’re led to believe that what we feed ourselves is a personal choice, and that by making the right choices this will be life sustaining, help our mental and physical wellbeing, and lessen the burden on an overstretched health service.
At the same time, the way our food is generally produced has become so industrialised, cheapened and denatured that only those with the luxury of time and financial security can temper this with more healthy and nutritious alternatives, and 'enjoy' processed food as an occasional indulgence or convenience rather than as a necessity.
Furthermore, during the pandemic there have been several instances contradicting what the government says we should eat and the food given out as emergency provisions, i.e. to those having to self-isolate or the typical Covid response pallets of tinned meat, pasta meals and other often ultra-processed high calorie foods destined to food bank users. The quality of the food hasn’t matched the spiel.
According to recent scientific research (mentioned in the BBC programme What are we feeding our kids?) by Dr Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health, one in five people’s diets are made up of 80 per cent ultra-processed food. Evidence shows that our brains are being hardwired to want this food, and this leads on average to a daily 500 calorie increase.
This surplus food is part of a 'profit above all else' subsidised food industry that is able to dictate and offload inferior food. Could this be perceived as a cynical act by the government aimed at those most in need?
People on low incomes are statistically more prone to malnutrition, obesity and diabetes as poor quality, additive ridden, fat and sugar-based foods are often the cheapest options for cash-strapped households not able to make healthier choices.
Food in Community’s activities over the past eight years have included supplying food aid organisations, such as food banks, with fresh vegetables and fruit otherwise lacking in their recipient parcels. Post-Covid we have seen an extraordinary rise in demand for food assistance.
Even though we try to make these food boxes as attractive as possible, giving these free and to the recipient’s doorstep, we believe this isn’t an ideal option – far better to give people the choice of what to buy and eat.
As such, Food in Community (supported by IFAN and trialled already in Scotland and soon in Cornwall) is pushing for a radical departure from the giving of food aid by joining the call for a cash-first system. Fundamental to this is earlier referrals for help and guidance before a household’s financiers become critical.
Food purchasing vouchers for the shop of choice could be issued as a stop gap while problems are being resolved or when claiming benefit, while applications are being processed.
Giving people back the power to make food choices for themselves by having enough money in their pockets would lessen the ignominy around food aid and help restore confidence. Professional help to sort the problems that might have led to situations of financial poverty could free up more time for considering healthier lifestyles, improving health and wellbeing, and eventually even forcing the large food producers and government to seriously rethink food aid, rather than sicken our society.