Wednesday, 11 March 2009


A report from Which? suggests that as people try to adjust to the current financial situation, healthy food choices are increasingly taking a back seat to price considerations.

You can bet that, if healthy choices are in the back seat, then thoughts about packaging and recycling are in a trailer somewhere, or possibly walking along the hard shoulder, trying to thumb a lift.

I have always had a sneaking suspicion that the idea of healthy food being more expensive is bunkum - but I've never actually checked up on it. Recently I read a forum post from someone who said she bought 5 ready meals for £4 and challenged anyone to buy the ingredients for 5 home-cooked meals (for one) on the same budget. Several people responded, but the only way to get close to 80p a meal seemed to be to buy a £1.99 chicken (is that Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall I can hear crying?) and some potatoes and veg, to have a roast and then various permutations of curry, etc. Even this didn't quite get down to 5 meals for £4.

This got me thinking about a comment made by Mrs Average last week about taking the waste message to areas where people are on restricted incomes. How do we do it?

This is a really tough one. Should we be trying to bombard everyone with the message at once, when we are already trying to get them to eat healthily in the first place? I am particularly thinking of areas which could be described as food deserts, where you could barely get an apple before, let alone now when even more shops are closing. If the local corner shop has their tiny fruit and veg display with some plastic bags of apples, and potatoes that are all but sprouting already, what do you buy? The messages conflict. Buy fresh food! Avoid excess packaging! Don't let produce go off! In the end it's much easier to reach for a microwave meal and not have to think about it.

Can we treat these areas the same way as others? Is it unrealistic and out of touch for us to swan in to such an area, yapping about making the most of tired tomatoes and not letting the last of the Sunday roast go to waste, if those two foods are not making an appearance anyway? What if your leftovers are two slices of a frozen pizza and the coleslaw that no-one likes from a KFC bucket? Not many LFHW recipes for those. Is the nature and scale of the food waste problem different in deprived areas, and if so, how? The figures are always presented as if we were a homogenous nation, which we aren't, and I imagine we don't create food waste equally either.

If you happen to eat a lot of takeaways and ready meals, are you more likely to bin the leftovers than if you had put the effort in to cook the meal yourself (easy come, easy go)? On the other hand, if you do your best to eke out your weekly food budget, are you more likely to avoid waste than someone with more cash to splash? If the leftover chicken biryani or last slice of the 2-for-1 supermarket pepperoni pizza becomes tomorrow's breakfast because that saves a couple of quid on cereal for the week, that's great for food waste but not so good for a balanced diet - which is the bigger priority? Can we let the healthy eating message take hold first and then come back to food waste - or can we tackle them both together?

I don't mean to be stereotypical. I know for sure that not everyone who lives in a deprived or run down area lives on takeaways and ready meals and I know there are people doing their bit to feed themselves and their families well. There are also more affluent people who also eat a lot of junk food! But what I am saying is that if you already have to make a hell of an effort to find healthy food that you can afford, or even just food you can afford full stop, the idea of food waste and packaging waste probably isn't a big priority, and you are probably not going to be too motivated to do anything about it if you are feeling lectured about it.

Maybe you watched Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food programme, teaching people in the deprived area of Rotherham to cook simple, healthy meals and then share their new skills and enthusiasm with others. That sort of scheme is brilliant - but what an opportunity to also pass on ideas about reducing food waste at the same time. Not making a big thing of it, but casually mentioning keeping fruit and veg scraps for the compost bin, highlighting that a particular recipe works fine with oldish carrots, or suggesting ideas for what you could do with leftovers of this or that recipe. Even ideas on portion sizes would help, to avoid overbuying - when you have never cooked, relating weights of items to what you actually eat is really hard! The point is that healthy eating and food waste are intertwined and perhaps it's best to address them in that way - together.

I'd love to hear other thoughts on this.


  1. Wow, brilliant post with such a lot of clarity and information. I have no answers of course, but just wanted to say thanks for such a great article.

    I share many of your concerns, as you might guess, but I know a '5 meals for £4' family and I wouldn't know where to begin with them. They have become victims of their poverty and with a large family to feed their priority is cost.

    Not true cost or value of course, but perceived cost.

    The thing that strikes me most about this friend of mine is that her kids are always starving. My friend prides herself on getting the most from value lines; but chuck some puffed air for breakfast and a thin white sandwich for lunch with a tiny 'value' chocolate bar and her kids aren't satisfied (or healthy, or well behaved, or happy or ....)

    But how to allow people to see the connection between 'cost' and value' and then to bring in the whole food waste and packaging waste issue is totally beyond me.

    I can make cheap soup, but I'm struggling to think what else I make that is actually cheap. Thing is though, I buy organic mostly, so this puts the cost up.
    Potatoes are a good one - a 25kg sack costs £5 around here, but you have to have a car to get them and room to store them. My friend has neither...
    Lentils are great, but she would DIE if I suggested such a 'fancy food' LOL!

    It's a tough one.

    Very thought provoking though - thank you :)

  2. As Rae said - a very thought-provoking and such a fabulous post. I grew up in a household with very limited income, but it was in the seventies and it was at a time when the elders in my family had the skills to make things last. Our meals were cheap and healthy and my mum still applies this principle to this very day, with the exception of the blip of my teenage years when we had a whole new range of ready-meals on the market. There has to be the balance between healthy-meals and food waste and it is a skill that is hard to teach. We are all so different with a wide-range of priorities...and these can change by the week. Sharing knowledge and leading by example is at least one step in the right direction. By the way, a note to Rae...I'm wondering if we have the same friend :-D x

  3. Me again - just wanted to let you know that I've got a Rubbish Blogging Bug award waiting for you over on my blog. Please feel free to polish and share - it's great having you around :-D