A better food future is within reach

By Dr Courtney Scott

21st July 2021

The National Food Strategy is a good start on affordability and inequalities and offers clear, achievable steps that will make real change. But, says FFCC Food and Health Programme Lead Dr Courtney Scott, there is so much more to do. Could a ‘beetroot bond’ be a way to get there?

Imagine that we’re in the year 2030. You’re on your way home from work and you pop into a street market to get some vegetables – your budget is tight, and you know that they sell good produce at fair prices. You’re glad to see they’ve have chopped up broccoli and carrots so you can get dinner on the table fast. The veg are from an urban farm nearby where you know the farmers are paid well for their produce and farm in a way that helps protect the environment. The next shop along is a butcher, selling high quality meat produced in harmony with nature, but tonight you want the lentil ragu and pasta from the café next door, that sells freshly cooked, affordable, and healthy takeaways. Home is just around the corner, where your kids are waiting. Their school lunch was delicious, filling, and nutritious, so they’re not starving, but looking forward to eating and catching up together.

This version of the future feels a long way off from where we are now with our food system, where the most convenient and affordable options are usually unhealthy for us and causing damage to our planet. But a better food system, that functions entirely differently, is possible.

And its within our grasp - the system just needs a big, coordinated push. That’s exactly why we, at FFCC, welcome the new National Food Strategy in England. The Strategy sets out practical steps government and businesses can take, and there are many things to support in the strategy. The citizens we’ve spoken to this year agree that it is the government’s responsibility to get to grips with our food system and are expecting businesses to make the necessary changes. They say things like:

“I think the government initially needs to make an incentive, need to make a plan for us all to be able to implement…Because as an individual, I think we all agree, we cannot make that big change ourselves, as much as we might want to do. We can't do it on a scale that will make a difference to the world.”

Focus group participant, 50-year-old conservative voter from Leeds

Affordability and inequality are two of the big issues that need to be grappled with to change the way we eat, and it’s good to see the Strategy start to do this. We hope even more thought will go into this in the government’s White Paper. In our recent research with citizens, affordability of healthier and more sustainable foods came up as an issue no matter what topic we were discussing. Affordability is not only about cost, however, and participants described many factors that combine with price to influence their food purchases: desirability, assessment of value, convenience, and low or unpredictable incomes. (For more on the multi-dimensional nature of affordability, see Corinna Hawkes’ excellent blog here.)

“I think cost has a big impact…there's a deal for two pizzas, some wedges, a pack of [ice cream] and some chicken nuggets for five pounds. And if you are on a budget, then that will do them for four or five meals whereas when I then bought a bag of you know, some fresh mince, that was five pounds and that isn't even my meal finished. So although you might want to it can be tempting to go with the easier, cheaper option.”

Focus group participant, 30-year-old Conservative voter from Southampton

The interesting thing is that governments and policy makers often underestimate the public’s appetite for change or government intervention. In recent FFCC polling of nearly 5,300 people, when we introduced messaging that the food system can function differently so that healthier and more sustainable foods become the affordable option, people were highly supportive of government policies and business actions to help us move in that direction.

The measures in the National Food Strategy such as improving access to free school meals and strengthening the healthy start scheme would be a great start. But really, we need to progress even further. We need government and businesses to take radical and practical actions to completely shift the types and nature of the food being produced and sold in the food system – and the relative price, convenience, and desirability of those foods. And we still need policy action to improve the quality of people’s work and wages, and the nature of the benefits system.

So let’s start talking about how we really make this happen.

As an example, FFCC is calling for a universal community food bond – which we refer to as the Beetroot Bond. It would give every person a monthly dividend to spend on healthy and sustainable food purchased directly from local farmers and traders. It would boost the health of the population, the health of the city and community, support viable farm businesses and shorter supply chains, and strengthen the bonds between the city and the countryside. And it would help communities respond together to food insecurity with dignity and creativity while connecting to broader food system transformation.

Food needs to be affordable for citizens but keeping food cheap – a mantra of successive governments – doesn’t solve food insecurity and comes at a price elsewhere in the system through damage to nature, climate and health. The National Food Strategy is out at last, with recommendations designed for swift and practical action. Government can pick up the baton in its White Paper, and then go further, to really get to grips with affordability, wages and benefits.

Time is not on our side, but change IS within our grasp. The version of the future we imagined at the beginning of this blog could soon be reality if government and businesses take bold action.

This short paper is part of Healthy food is everyone's business - a series exploring and developing the ideas in the National Food Strategy, and discussing what needs to happen now.

The National Food Strategy is a rigorously researched, eloquently written and passionate call to action. As the dust settles, it’s time for serious conversation about how we work together to take the eminently achievable recommendations in the Strategy into the promised White Paper. They are the first steps on the route to a different future for food, farming and land use, improving the public’s health, reducing inequalities and acting on the nature and climate crises.

This is a critical moment. It’s both deadly serious - we have just 9 growing seasons left until 2030 - and hopeful, as we see a growing consensus forming around a route to a better future. When we published Our Future in the Land in 2019, which shares the same analysis and many recommendations as Henry’s Strategy, that consensus was not so clear.

It’s time to let governments know we want them to be bold, radical and practical, to create the conditions for business and citizens to work together to get this done.