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We may be on the edge of a perfect nutritional storm. A worrying spiral of rising wholesale food prices, ever larger weekly food bills, falling fruit and veg consumption rates, stagnating household incomes and increased fuel bills are forcing people on the lowest incomes, in some of the most deprived areas of Wales, into increasingly difficult choices about their weekly shop and wider nutritional health. The economic slowdown is causing patterns of food consumption to change and, together with increasing pressures on school food budget lines, we may be storing up problems for the long term health and well-being of Wales.
Data from DEFRA shows that, on average, people in Wales still purchase more fruit and vegetables than people in the other UK nations, buying 1,196 grams per week. However the Welsh Health Survey has shown the percentage of people aged 16 and over in Wales who reported eating five portions of fruit and vegetables had fallen from 36% in 2008 to 33% by 2011.
The rising price of food – up 32% over the past five years according to official figures – has meant the least well-off consumers have re-focused their increasingly stretched food budgets on frozen and processed meals at the expense of fresh produce such as fish, meat and fruit. Over the 2008-10 period Wales purchased on average more fats, oils, sugar and preserves than the other UK nations and more soft drinks and confectionery than any other UK nation apart from Scotland. Those two countries have the highest level of saturated fat intake as a percentage of total energy consumption, with saturated fats providing 14.6% of daily energy intake in both countries when the recommended level should be no more than 11 per cent.
While there has been a downward trend in the percentage of people aged 16 and over reporting consumption of their five a day across all socioeconomic classifications, the largest decrease has been amongst adults that have never worked or are long-term unemployed. In 2008, 33 per cent of adults in Wales that have never worked or were long-term unemployed reported eating five portions of fruit and vegetables the previous day. This had fallen to 22 per cent by 2011.
The worry is that those living in food poverty are turning to low-cost, high volume, high fat, high sugar food as well as high caffeine drinks to combat the deficiency elsewhere in their diet. That’s why we need a more comprehensive debate about food poverty, in particular the impact it is having on the young people who start and end the day filled with the wrong type of food, putting themselves at long-term risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Late last year the Welsh Government’s launched a new Public Health Green Paper and it may end up dealing with some of the issues raised above. The narrow focus on fruit and vegetables in public health campaigns perhaps needs to be widened to a broader, more sophisticated understanding of the difference between on the one hand fresh, unprocessed food and high sugar, high fat processed food on the other.
The great irony is that Wales produces some of the finest food, produce and ingredients in the world – our supply chain serving food to the bright school minds of tomorrow should be the most sustainable in the world, but it isn’t. The tough times may be here for a good while longer so our attention needs to turn quickly and squarely to a new food revolution and ensure those worst affected by the downturn get the food and nourishment they need to thrive.
Ken Skates Am, Clwyd South