Will a healthy and nutritious diet ever be accessible and affordable to the European population?
- 2 min read
What is the future of food? Organic produce, fermentation, expensive supplements, meal replacing shakes, plant-based everything and many inspirational stories? As for the future of food, yes, there’s certainly parts of truth and future in all the initiatives seeking to improve the lifestyles of those that are already living off of a nutritious and healthy diet. Though, what is the true essence of these alternatives? Numerous entrepreneurs truly dream to inspire and live to educate, but there is a grand majority, feeding supply, with financial motivation in order to survive in the market. My thoughts have led me to reason beyond my own needs and brought me to wondering: why is the food industry not seeking to expand beyond its own necessities and financial perspective? Why do so little of us seek to feed the society where avocado toast and kale juice are nothing but a grand phantasm? The only reasonable answer that came to mind was the lack of financial return. As Gandhi once said: “There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed” (Balch, 2013). Therefore, the question I will attempt to answer this time is: "Will a healthy and nutritious diet ever be accessible and affordable to the European population?"
Personally, I have always sought to aid others struggling in ways that were familiar to my own. I myself know what it is like to be profoundly hungry, metaphorically speaking. Seeing my mother work hard in order for us to eat a nutritious meal at the end of the day has motivated me to dive into the controversy we refer to as the food industry. Eventually realising, that cost and origin of produce do not have to be the main driver to provide a healthy and tasty meal, but what are those main drivers? Why do we still fail to feed all? Why are obesity levels at an all-time high? Why do these people fall through the mazes of our socialized societies?
Where does the problem start? There are numerous causes, but, two major drivers for an unhealthy diet are financial infirmity and lack of education (Tomm, 2018). Financial infirmity covers the bitter side of the spectrum where an unhealthy diet seems inevitable: “For families on the breadline, eating healthy food is secondary to eating at all” (Kerridge, 2018). Whereas lack of
education is clearly visible, where those at the poor end of the scale seem to be nescient of possibilities (ibid). This became evident to me whilst volunteering at the food bank in The Hague where the weekly food parcel is the main pillar of support to one’s diet. With no assurance of what fills the fridge each week and a lack of dietary knowledge, food still gets disposed of despite its nutritional value. As Jamie Oliver explains: “Poor people are not obese because they are lazy, or simply because they
eat too much (although some do), rather because the price of good wholesome food is beyond their financial reach” (Kerridge, 2018). If you were on a strict budget to feed a family would you buy a zucchini or a pack of spaghetti, assuming they cost exactly the same? Depending on what your knowledge is and how you have been nurtured, the perception of nutrients differs just like which pair of jeans we choose to wear.
Where do we begin to explain the broad difficulties of defining terms such as poor, unhealthy and nutritious? To start off, according to Eurostat (2019), the percentage of the European population that is at risk of poverty is 17%. In addition, almost half of this 17%, (48.6%) is unemployed. Moreover, the group experiencing the highest risk of poverty in most European countries are single person households. According to World Data Lab et al. (2020), 0.3% of the European population lives in extreme poverty, which comes down to 2,5 million people.
Despite the low poverty rate within Europe, 7,45% of the European population over the age of 15 were still food insecure from 2014 to 2016 (Fang et al., 2019). Hunger will in this essay be referred to as food insecurity to cover all aspects, food insecurity is defined as: “limited or unreliable access to foods that are safe and nutritionally adequate” (Lam and Worldhunger.com, 2018). There is significant proof that poverty is the principal cause of food insecurity (ibid). Moreover, food insecurity is also the cause of poverty as it induces poor health which generally the thought that food insecurity is only caused by malnutrition. As obesity is a continuously increasing problem within the European society, overnutrition is a new form of food insecurity in which weight is no longer the main indicator to define healthy. Many of the citizens living in poverty get to eat, but, are missing important nutrients that provide vitamins and minerals (Lam and Worldhunger.com, 2018). Yes, that means that people who are overweight might be malnourished too (Unite For Sight, 2020). In order to define a nutritious and healthy diet, this essay will consider the data provided by the World Health Organization as a key indicator, according to which, a healthy diet needs to protect against malnutrition in all forms, this diet should start early in one’s life (e.g. breastfeeding). Additionally, one’s calorie intake should be similar to the energy consumption and the sugar and salt intake should be limited (World Health Organization, 2020).
The evidence presented leaves us with a significant group of European citizens struggling to implement a healthy and nutritious diet. There are multiple aspects to food insecurity and malnutrition. Whilst reasoning as to if, a healthy and nutritious diet will ever be available to all European citizens, possible key drivers to the phrased challenges regarding food insecurity have been identified and researched. The main challenges to improve accessibility and affordability of a healthy and nutritious diet are (amongst others): the lack of education regarding a healthy lifestyle, the grocery gap and the new definition of a healthy diet: grow what’s best for people and planet (Kerridge, 2018; Yang et al., 2020; Cheers, 2018; Demaio et al., 2019). These main challenges have been identified as the trends to the related topic.
People versus Planet
Despite the fact that I am writing this essay with the intent to educate others, I still have a lot to learn too. During preliminary research, I found out that even my perception of a healthy and nutritious diet differs from what scientists and experts tell us. According to Demaio et al. (2019) and EUFIC (2011), feeding the entire European population in a healthy matter for both people and planet, should start with re-defining our diets and resetting our food system priorities to improve agriculture and let that lead the way to sustainability. The diet re-set would entail a ‘flexitarian’ diet in which sugar consumption is reduced by 50 percent and in which we should increase the intake of fruits, vegetables and nuts, but, reduce the intake of animal proteins (European Public Health Association, 2017). When we re-design our diets, the healthy and nutritious diet will simultaneously become more affordable and accessible to those that are currently food insecure. By implementing the re-set diet, a healthy diet will have to be set as the new normal to society.
Governments as well as the EU and WHO should implement policies to support the new healthy and invest in improving public health information and force the food chain to offer healthy alternatives. Moreover, another necessary action to be taken when re-setting our diet is reducing the loss and waste of food. This is caused by poor consumer understanding of the usability of products which leads to unnecessary food disposal (e.g. misunderstanding of best before dates), inadequate food storage (e.g. cooling) and an unbalanced supply chain which is not accurately using supply and demand (e.g. poor harvesting scheduling). By implementing a circular food system, the food chain will innovate the possibilities of re-using food. The re-use of food will particularly contribute to those suffering food insecurity as it will reduce prices, increase the capacity of European food banks and create new business opportunities. In order for all of this to happen, the entire food chain needs to be redesigned and all of its
stakeholders, from governmental institutions to food conglomerates, every single stakeholder needs to willingly contribute. Even you, as an individual should re-think your decisions when you sit down at the dinner table, every single night (European Public Health Association, 2017; Demaio et al., 2019; Kerridge, 2018).
To teach or not to teach?
Even though re-designing our diets seems like a fair and ‘easy’ decision, concluding that most of us are still eating according to different standards that have been there for generations, it is hard work, but something has to change (European Public Health Association, 2017).
Politicians, scientists, experts and educational institutes have to work together in order to (re-) educate society on what healthy and nutritious is (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020). Having access to healthy food is one part and being able to afford it the second. However, in order to empower people struggling with malnutrition, overnutrition or food insecurity in the broadest sense of the word, education has to complete the puzzle. Educational institutions play a major role in our societies and therefore also in educating new generations on the why’s and how’s of a healthy and nutritious diet (ibid).
Other initiatives such as foodbanks should also re-shape their concepts so that, besides the amazing work that is done to provide so many people across the continent with food parcels, they will also be provided with knowledge on how to use them. Experts from the University of Chicago suggest that education regarding nutrition might be more effective than subsidizing those in need when attempting to reduce the nutrition gap (Cheers, 2018). Education regarding healthy food and nutrition is implementable on several levels varying from governmental to individual. The power of education reaches beyond providing information, it empowers people to take control of their health, fills the desire to live healthy and know how to and it will eventually pressurize decision makers within the food chain to start promoting healthy diets as well. Eventually resulting in people making healthier food choices, followed by governments implementing food and nutrition into the educational systems and the political agenda, which will eventually force the producers within the food chain to recognize the trend and require them to produce and support healthy produce and market them as their new cheeseburger with extra bacon (Fang et al., 2019; Demaio et al., 2019; Tomm, 2018; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020). Yes, that is the answer to: why is he food industry not seeking to expand beyond its own necessities and financial perspective? If we change, we will change them. Stop feeding the supply and start creating a new demand.
The Grocery Gap
Let’s be honest here, even when we adapt to a new ‘normal’ diet and educate society, there will still be many people left with the
grand phantasm of healthy foods. How can the system make sure that everyone who is ready to change will actually change?
Provide them with the necessary supply. That is where the so called ‘grocery gap’ comes in.
The grocery gap is identified as the lack of availability of fresh and healthy foods to those suffering from malnutrition, overnutrition and food insecurity, mostly living in low-income neighbourhoods (as there is a strong causal relationship between poverty and food insecurity). Despite the fact that Jamie Oliver tried to convince us that it is not the supply of produce but
the financial imparity that is causing malnutrition and food insecurity (Kerridge, 2018), research tells us a different story. Let’s start off with some food for thought, think of the lowincome neighbourhoods in your town or city and try to count the amount of fast food chains and convenience stores within the area. Then, think of the neighbourhood where the real estate at offer is too expensive for most people, how many Kentucky Fried Chicken’s will you find there? What I am trying to say here is, re-setting our diets might be possible for some of us, education might be available for everyone. However, only if the supply of healthy foods to
those suffering from poor nutrition and food insecurity improves, a healthy and nutritious will become available to all. What needs to change within our system to get rid of the so-called Grocery Gap? As the lack of healthy and affordable goods is maintained by the grocery gap, several actions can be taken to change things for the better. By opening-up high quality grocery stores that offer a replacement to the unhealthy foods provided by others, re-setting one’s diet will be simplified. Moreover, by improving the transportation access from low-income neighbourhoods to those areas that are offering healthier alternatives, the gap will shrink as better access has been proven to correspond with a healthier diet. Lastly, the mentioned actions have proven to reduce the risk of diet-related diseases such as obesity and improve the social environment of low-income neighbourhoods as a healthy food retail system provides jobs which rejuvenates low-income neighbourhoods (Yang et al., 2020; San-Epifanio and Scheifler, 2015; Fang et al., 2019; Tomm, 2018). Will a healthy and nutritious diet ever be accessible and affordable to the European population? As complex as this question is, so is the answer and the conclusion. Yes, there are several initiatives that are increasing the affordability and accessibility of healthy food to those in need, but there is a long road ahead. In order for a healthy and nutritious diet to be available to all, we need to change the food system we are familiar with by educating and improving the availability of foods that are considered healthy and nutritious by experts. Will the food system change for the better and take its responsibility? I certainly hope so. However, after all, the financial burden of implementing the key drivers of food insecurity can not be carried by any individual. It starts with the consumer who needs to be motivated by major stakeholders such as the government, food producers and educational institutes. However, you can also empower the change some of us so desperately need, start volunteering at the foodbank, offer to cook for the single mom down the street and consider the daily choices you make with regards to your diet. Despite the truth in Gandhi’s words, I believe, that by burying our greed, we will be able to figure out what it is that we need, we have only just begun.
- Jeltje Smink