GUEST BLOG: Enjoyment is as important as affordability

Peas Please blog series 1 by Clara Widdison, National Growth Manager, Community Shop

Two weeks ago the media covered the results of a study at Imperial College London claiming that eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day can reduce the risk of chronic disease and positively impact our life span. The BBC responded to ask whether eating this amount of fruit and vegetables is affordable to anyone but the wealthiest.  According to Share Your Lunch campaign, run by Can Cook in Liverpool, tweeted in response that eating 10 daily portions (800 grams in total) would cost a family £2 per person and would be unaffordable for those on a low income.

The cheapest vegetables that I could find in my local Tesco today were spring greens, the first cabbages of the year, advertised at 69p for a 500g pack. £1.10, then, to get my ten portions. Affordable? Absolutely.

However, the UK government recommends incorporating as many varieties as possible.  So I did a little bit of maths. I worked out that if I were to eat 800g of fruit and veg across ten different varieties of fruit and vegetables, the lowest price I would pay would in Tesco would be £1.06p a day, or £7.42 a week. This would buy me spring greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, white onions, parsnips and sweet potatoes and would be just about affordable within the £19.50 weekly food budget that members of Community Shop told us that they have to spend each week, so long as I was as frugal in my purchasing of other food groups.

This presupposes, however, that I would be content to cook and eat a hearty vegetable stew or roast dinner for most of my main meals. If my sole motivation for consuming fruit and veg was my health, perhaps I would be. But for human beings food is never really an end in itself. It is not a fuel to allow for other activities or to keep us alive for a little bit longer. It creates joy and delight, creates memories and reinforces our identity. For most people, health is only one factor when deciding what to eat.

When I talked to our members at Community Shop, as part of research into food choices in a social supermarket where good quality food is sold at 30% of RRP, they told me that they have a spectrum of fruit and vegetables preferences, often with soft berries and exotic fruits occupying the top spots, and green vegetables such as celery and cabbage at the bottom. In these conversations strawberries, in particular, and other sweet fruits were referred to as ‘treats’.

A number of members told me that the fruit and veg they enjoy eating are not necessarily the cheapest and that they are not motivated to eat produce that they do not enjoy. One member said that she did not want to consume the cheapest fruit available: ‘I will still buy them, it’s just that, to say that you’re going to have these 5 fruits a day and how much every day, there’s no way I can afford that… and the fruits I can afford, I don’t want them’.  Another member, talking about the exotic fruits she reported enjoying consuming, said: ‘If I had access to those foods at a good cost, I’d eat them all the time’.

This is what we see in the shopping habits of members at Community Shop, where we sell all of our pre-packaged fruit and vegetables at a flat rate of 20p. Yesterday nectarines, grapes, mangos and tomatoes had sold out by lunchtime, whilst parsnips, red onions and turnips remained on the shelves until the end of the day. As a result of being able to afford the high quality, typically more expensive ranges of fresh produce, 71% of members have told us that they’re eating more fruit and vegetables in their diet.

When I recalculated the cost of eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day to include a range of produce that members told me that they enjoy eating; strawberries, spinach, blueberries, grapes, asparagus, tomatoes, okra, plums, butternut squash and apples, the cost of ten 80g portions daily rose to £4.13, equating to £28.91 a week, and far exceeding most UK households budgets never mind those that are low income.

As we’re desperately trying to find ways to support people in making healthy food choices, we have to acknowledge the importance of personal preferences and taste, and of quality and value in our approach. The UK government policy to increase fruit and veg intake in lower income populations focuses on making fruit and veg affordable and accessible, but gives little thought to making it desirable, upping the quality, and focussing on making accessible the most popular varieties. The Peas Please campaign crucially acknowledges the importance of making veg desirable which will be, for many people, the difference between whether they will buy it or not. And that is what matters.