In the past decade there has been a revolution in the British food industry. If you are a comfortably-off urban dweller, it has never been easier to procure a healthy snack. Gone are the days where a soggy sandwich and a packet of crisps were the best you could hope for: now your options include protein pots, prepared mango, chia seed yoghurt, salads containing quinoa. Large supermarkets, too, have cottoned on: if it’s fajita night, a wholemeal wrap is an option. So is reduced-fat cheese. And, if you’re happy to overlook the food miles involved, a larger selection of fresh vegetables than our grandparents could have ever imagined.
Yet the food revolution does not benefit everyone. A new study from the Social Market Foundation in collaboration with Kellogg’s has found that more than a million Britons are living in “food deserts” – neighbourhoods where poverty, poor transport and a lack of big supermarkets severely curtails access to affordable fruit and vegetables.
These neighbourhoods are often out-of-town estates or deprived inner-city wards which are also “food swamps”, cynically dominated by fast-food outlets. And as a Cambridge University study found last year, people on low incomes who lived furthest from a supermarket were more likely to be obese than those who lived closer.
Those of us who have ever had a “cornershop dinner” will know the sort of options available in food deserts: the only shops for miles around sell very little fresh food, so you’re left with a choice between meals such as dried instant noodles or pasta, tinned Scotch broth, and if you’re lucky enough to have a freezer cabinet, pizza. These small shops are also often very expensive, too, but in the trade-off between spending money on transport to the nearest big Tesco for broccoli or a filling, carb-heavy meal, it’s no wonder people opt for the latter.
Some people will victim-blame here, and say that these people should get off their lazy arses and cycle to the shops. But there are deep, systemic reasons for these problems. Travel to parts of Europe and you see the reliance of other cultures on the square – a place to meet, converse and for children to play, but also often containing a greengrocer and a bakery and a butcher. This side of Britain feels lost to the big supermarkets, our high streets rendered redundant by out-of-town shopping centres and internet giants. There could be radical architectural solutions, but with government investment in housing dispiriting at best, these are unlikely to take place any time soon.
When it comes to tempting supermarkets selling fresh food into these areas it’s a vicious circle – they’ll argue that the deprivation means that the customer base won’t be there, and so the customer base becomes even more likely to make unhealthy food choices (junk food can be addictive, remember), because that’s all that is available. Education plays a part, of course. Cooks like Jack Monroe have shown that with a little initiative it is possible to cook healthy meals on a low budget, though it still doesn’t solve the problem with getting your hands on some carrots if you live in a food desert and can’t afford to run a car. LocoL, a restaurant project in Los Angeles that aimed to bring affordable, healthy fast food to a deprived part of the city has closed partly due to not having enough customers, while Tesco’s US initiative Fresh & Easy also failed.
This doesn’t mean local community cafes should be discounted – there are other models which are working well. The US scheme of offering loans and grants to fresh food shops to tempt them into areas could be replicated in the UK. There’s certainly much the government could be doing to curb the dominance of the food giants intent on getting us hooked on rubbish. Its only anti-obesity strategy in this regard seems to be insisting that pizzas become smaller, while its commitment to increase the amount of surplus food waste distributed to food banks is good, while at the same time revealing that they don’t expect reliance on these to go away anytime soon.
The government’s austerity policies have also played a large part in this problem, making people even less able to reach the food outlets they need and more likely to be hungry or obese. With 4 million children in this country living in households that would struggle to afford to buy enough fruit, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods to meet the official nutrition guidelines, history will not judge them kindly.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
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