Celery and carrot sticks

You might remember that in my last blog, about litter, I mentioned that the next one would be about sweets. Well, it turns out that food and sugar have indeed been on my mind a lot since then. Partly, this has been due to us making a gradual return to the office, which has meant I can no longer just nip into the kitchen throughout the day, but it’s also been because of the growing coverage we’re seeing in the media about food security.

The first news article about shortages of Haribo was easy enough to dismiss initially, not least as our house seems to have a three-year supply hidden in various ‘safe places’. But stories like this have increased in number, with reports of restaurants reducing menus due to lack of availability of key ingredients, fruit and veg going unpicked, lorry driver recruitment challenges and the inevitable pics of empty supermarket shelves.

Although this is obviously hugely concerning, the picture is very much worse internationally. The 2021 Global Report on Food Crises describes the remarkably high numbers of people in ‘food crisis’ caused by persistent conflict, pre-existing and COVID-19-related economic shocks, and weather extremes. This is the highest in the report’s five-year existence.

Yet, it is also reported that a third of our global food production is spoiled or wasted before it can be consumed (Food waste by country: who's the biggest waster? - IFCO Systems). That is 4.5 million tonnes of food worth £14 billion, which could have been eaten (Keep crushing it | Love Food Hate Waste) It is thought that 4,600 kcal/day of food is harvested each day for every person on the planet, but only 2,000 kcal, on average, actually gets eaten. Such spoiled food often ends up as landfill, producing methane gas and contributing to climate change and the weather extremes that can lead to further food supply crises.

There are of course, many reasons why food might to go to waste. In the UK, consumer preferences drive the binning of perfectly edible fruit and veg, as do overly cautious and sometimes confusing sell/use/best before dates. In fact, the amount of food each of us[1] wastes each year could feed someone for 42 days.

Then of course, there is the packaging waste. When I am out litter picking, the vast majority of what I come across is the wrappers for sugar-laden and nutritionally poor sweets, drinks and crisps. But I am not judging. In fact, as the wide range of wrappings blows about my feet on a Saturday morning, I confess to being a bit jealous. The plethora of cheap, exotic, semi-plastic sweets were not available to me as a child, though if they had been, I wouldn’t have any teeth left. Our treat was a ‘10p mix up’ from the local cash and carry, sweets that had probably been there for at least 5 years. Now, the choice is between large bags of Haribo type sweets, weird, plastic-wrapped, sugar bombs that also serve as a whistle, giant bags of crisps and huge bottles of teeth-dissolving, caffeine-laden drinks.

In ‘Hooked; How processed food became addictive’, Michael Moss describes how some foods act like drugs, with the taste of sugar hitting your brain 20 times faster than tobacco smoke. Food decisions are hence rarely purely rational, even in adults, and yet we are clearly allowing our kids to buy a wide range of terrible (in every possible definition of the word) ‘snacks’. And of course, there is also the influence of marketing and advertising by manufacturers and retailers, which has a significant effect on food purchases.

So how do we change this? How do we all make better choices, with long-term health benefits when such foods—vegetables being the most notable—have short shelf lives and are wasted in relatively high amounts?

There is a clear benefit to helping people consume healthier food as it leads to less waste and reduced environmental impact, as well as often having significant medical benefits. However, obesity in Scotland shows a strong link with inequality, and the risk of developing it is lowest among children living in more affluent areas. Around 32% of adults living in the most deprived areas are obese, compared with 20% of those living in the least deprived areas. Unfortunately, socioeconomic status, income and education levels still seem to be the most important predictors of whether we make the ‘right choices’ when it comes to our diet, and hence some interventions run the risk of negatively impacting the very people they are trying to help.

The Scottish Government has a vision that by 2025 Scotland will be a Good Food Nation, where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day. To help achieve this, they launched the Good Food Futures programme, which aims to provide an overarching, coordinated and end-to-end approach to the delivery of food education to young people and encourage careers in the food industry.

To this end, the Good Food Champions online resource for teachers highlights the importance of food and nutrition, and how food education goes beyond what we eat and cook. It contains modules supporting SQA units in Maths, Biology, Geography, Environmental Science, and Health and Food Technology, across levels from National 4 to Advanced Higher. and I am delighted to be helping with this work by presenting on career opportunities early in October.

There are other initiatives too, such as the work of Community Food & Health Scotland (CFHS) which aims to ensure that everyone in Scotland has the opportunity, ability and confidence to access a healthy and acceptable diet for themselves, their families and their communities. They do this by supporting work with and within low-income communities that addresses health inequalities and barriers (availability, affordability, skills and culture) to healthy and affordable food and you can read more about their work here.

Connecting directly with food production and growing more food in schools, homes, allotments, and community gardens takes effort, time and money, but can pay dividends in longer-term health benefits. It cannot just be the preserve of people who are fortunate enough to have a large garden and free time. Perhaps we all need to be Good Food Champions?

But even when we are fully aware of what the right choice is, we still sometimes need a push in the right direction. As individuals we are often aware of the need for a healthy diet, but don’t act on this knowledge. Doing more exercise is undoubtedly ‘A Good Thing’ but how many of us have only done so after an ‘event’ such as an injury, health scare or terribly unflattering photograph…

But it is hard. The same brain processes that make drinking and drugs so addictive can mean that many of us struggle to make positive choices when it comes to our diet. It is even harder when we are young, and I would imagine that the ongoing restrictions haven’t helped either.

In Iceland, a community-based approach called Planet Youth has brought families closer and helped kids to become healthier in all kinds of ways. It has been tried successfully in other countries too, and now Dundee could be next.

Overall, the evidence seems to indicate that a combination of approaches is required, and a balance needed between education and enforcement. Between the celery or carrot stick, and the stick!

[1] Okay, not all of us...