The current food system is flawed. With rising prices, farmers unable to support themselves, and agricultural practices that have destroyed the ecology of the land over the past hundred years, there are many issues to talk about in our food and farming industry. However, one thing that is often overlooked is our current food system’s impact on our health. Unfortunately, the big food companies are focused on profit, not public health, and that’s got to change.
The focus on convenience food
The majority of food production is in the hands of a tiny number of huge, global companies. This, coupled with advancements in food technology, has led to a food market being focused on ultra-processed food products (UPP). These foods are designed to be convenient, eaten on the go, appealing to consumers, and, most notably to the manufacturers and retailers, highly profitable. This is because the vast majority are made from incredibly low-cost ingredients. Because these products are so popular and profitable, food businesses have invested in developing them to bring costs down further and marketing aggressively to promote them even more. This means the world and UK food market are flooded with cheaper convenience food that makes their creators a lot of money.
Impacts on Health
So, how does cheap, convenience food impact health? Firstly, the cheap ingredients used to make such high-profit margins often contain high fat, salt and/or sugar levels. This, coupled with the fact that unhealthy, convenience food is on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier food, means it is often the go-to option for many low-income households. As a result, the UK population, especially those with the least money, buy more unhealthy food simply because it’s cheaper. Furthermore, the cost of living crisis has worsened the problem further as consumers look for more frugal groceries options to reduce their outgoings.
Obesity, health conditions and Covid
Access to calorie-dense but nutritiously lacking junk food has had a devastating effect on the health of the UK population. Almost three in ten of our adult population is obese, with almost one in three people over 45 in England determined clinically obese. In Sheffield, the stats are even worse. In 2020 figures revealed that nearly two-thirds of adults in Sheffield were overweight or obese. Later in 2020, studies further revealed that more than one in five children in Sheffield are finishing primary school obese.
Obesity significantly increases the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and depression. In England, one in three people over the age of 45 has diabetes or a heart condition. Whether these conditions are the consequence of obesity or not, bad dietary health is a common factor. Furthermore, people with obesity were 32% more likely to have depression.
The UK’s high rate of obesity also contributed to our tragically high death rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a strong correlation between obesity and the likelihood of becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19. Studies show that the risk of death from COVID-19 is 1.5 times higher if you are obese, rising to 2.25 times more likely if you are severely obese. In addition, those with Type 2 diabetes are 81% more likely to die from COVID-19.
How a Local focused Food System can help
So, what is the solution? While health education, lowering the cost of nutritious food and taxing unhealthy food can all contribute to reducing the obesity epidemic, the main issue is the large corporations that control the supply chain. A switch to a local focus food system could be healthier for us all and beneficial to the economy and environment too.
Hyper-local food production tends to focus on healthier food options such as livestock and fresh produce. Small, local farmers and producers do not have the equipment to create highly processed food items. The focus on healthier, unprocessed food options would increase consumption of these items, as long as access to the food is also thought about.
Community markets and kitchens, food pantries and locally stocked retailers in Sheffield could all be part of the solution to get local food to local people. Plus, if these organisations are within our communities, we could reduce car usage as people could walk or use public transport. This would improve air quality, decrease the energy used for transportation, reduce carbon emissions and provide local residents with more exercise, a key component in staying healthy.
Furthermore, we could create more jobs and volunteering opportunities with a robust local food system. This would provide more active, energetic roles for people in our community and strengthen Sheffield’s economy. By focusing on quality, nutritious, local food, we can tackle the health issues caused by the current food system but also help the economy, save the environment and boost community wealth in Sheffield.
ShefFood is the food partnership for Sheffield. They are a cross-sector partnership of public agencies, businesses, and academic and community organisations committed to working together to create a more sustainable food system for Sheffield. For more information or to get involved, please contact ShefFood’s Partnership Coordination Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.