Two countries, one aim – let’s increase vegetable consumption

Tomm Leighton

It’s always been fascinating to me what you find out when you spend time in different countries and how often you realise just how similar we all are, whatever our apparent differences

Regular readers can probably imagine that I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Holland recently. We have lots in common, but of course, to an Englishman, the Dutch are separated from us not only by the North Sea (126.4 miles of water to be precise), but also by our language (though every Dutch person I ever encountered speaks at least reasonably good English), by our socio-political and historical cultures and mindsets, and of course by the very way we go about our everyday lives. 

Like everywhere in the western world though, we are not separated by our love of oft-unhealthy food and drink. In a very general sense, the love of food is a universal culture, although the types of food that you love can of course be entirely different. Whether you’re loving bitterballen in Amsterdam or pie and mash in London, however, the chances are you’re not eating enough vegetables.

Diet-related deaths

This report released in 2015 warned us that poor diet has become the biggest contributor to early deaths across the world. Latest global data suggests that in 2013, some 21% of global deaths could be attributed to diets high in red meat and sugary drinks, and lacking in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. The top-ranked risks for men and women were high blood pressure, smoking, high body mass index (BMI), and high blood sugar levels. Poor nutritional intake topped the lot though, when it came to cumulative affect on health.

I’d be willing to bet that there is not one person in the UK or Holland reading this column who is surprised to read that figure. It’s just one of the mountain of statistics that we hear so often; we all know it makes sense to eat more healthily, but we still steadfastly refuse as a general rule to do so. 

It may be more of a surprise to find out that in the same year (2013) Kantar figures showed that the ‘average’ British family (2 adults and 2 children) spent more money on vegetables (17.17) at British retail chains each month than any other grocery item in their basket – incidentally, fruit was in second place (£14.43) and wine came third (£13.92). Those figures do not include out-of-home consumption of course, and its fair to assume I think that the proportion spent on veg in your average public and private sector restaurant is somewhat lower.

Life-saving consequences

The fact that two new initiatives to boost vegetable consumption, one British, one Dutch, will be launched within a three weeks of each other is not just an interesting and timely development, therefore, but one with potentially life-saving consequences on a huge scale.

Earlier this month, I was invited by The Food Foundation to participate in a ‘Veg Retreat’ in Birmingham, at the beginning of a project to find ways to feed more vegetables into the British diets in a sustainable manner. The two-day meeting was extremely informative and it brought together a veritable hotchpotch of interests from the private and public sectors.

The first day was spent travelling around Birmingham and its environs to study how vegetables are grown, bought and delivered by the supply chain to consumers in the UK’s second city. While one group took in a couple of growers, my day began in the other group at the city’s wholesale market, which despite its dilapidated state (it will be demolished and relocated next year) is still well stocked with both tenants and produce. Our second stop was The Nationwide Caterers Association, where street food was atop the agenda. We then visited City Serve, which is busy transforming the provision of meals to schoolchildren around Birmingham, partly by re-connecting the schools themselves with the joys of healthy food through infectious enthusiasm. And our final destination was Handsworth high street and a look at the cornucopia of exotic veg on offer at any number of the town’s Asian grocery outlets.

On the second day, the two groups combined to reflect on their experiences and formulate an action plan for the next few months. For much of the time it appeared that the number of different agendas in the room would make any form of consensus difficult – the core assumption appeared to be that any additional vegetables consumed should be British grown, but that British growers were polluting the environment, growing inefficiently, and their hard-nosed customers were neither paying enough to their suppliers or selling the vegetables at prices that consumers could afford. However, the supply chain and retail/foodservice side of the coin was well represented and made its voice heard. While I wouldn’t say people reversed their strongly held opinions, I do believe that a number of people in the room found room to consume facts that they had not digested previously.

This was the official start of an on-going project by The Food Foundation and on November 7, there will be a simultaneous three-venue launch in Cardiff, Glasgow and London. There are limited places available at each venue, but I would urge anyone in the vegetable sector with an interest in this initiative (surely everybody!) to click on the link closest to them and see whether they can be part of what’s happening.  

Increasing output sustainably

Continued industry input – from every stage of the supply chain through to buyers – is crucial because there are misperceptions out there. The barriers to increasing vegetable consumption include consumer price perception, poor accessibility in some areas, lack of knowledge of vegetables generally, an image of vegetables as humdrum and a widespread dislike of certain lines. But the British production system could increase its output significantly, and fairly quickly, if required and do it in a sustainable way, as long as its network of buying customers is on board with that sustainable ethos.

While anyone involved in the industry understands that vegetables are by no means expensive, there is a job to do to convince not only the average consumer, but also the public sector otherwise. Likewise, the vegetable sector understands the huge strides that have been made to make the industry more environment-friendly, more efficient and more sustainable in recent times – but there are plenty of people out there who still have axes to grind who would all be better informed if they had direct access to industry information and people. 

Those same barriers exist in Holland, as Voedingscentrum’s Karin Bemelmans pointed out in this piece on PBUK this week. Measurements differ from country to country, but the Dutch stats suggest that the average consumer eats 127 grams of vegetables a day. However, the country’s health council recommends a figure of at least 200g a day, and Voedingscentrum (The Dutch Nutrition Centre) has taken up the challenge by launching a campaign that aims to almost double the current level to 250g. 

Aiming for the sky

Ambitious maybe, but when there is so much scientific evidence that eating more veg will improve people’s health, why not aim for the sky? Much as we looked at the different routes to ‘market’ in Birmingham, in Holland there is an emphasis on finding ways to introduce vegetables into more meal occasions in more settings, both formal and informal. Karin and colleagues will be at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference next Thursday [November 3], so please do take the opportunity to find out more and see how the industry can help further Voedingscentrum’s cause too. 

Both The Food Foundation and Veodingscentrum will have enjoyed reading the latest Eurostat data – read the full report here – which found that the UK and the Netherlands, perhaps surprisingly, came out at numbers one and three in a survey of Europe’s fruit and vegetable consumption habits, with Denmark making up the top three leading the way when it comes to the proportion of their adult population eating at least five portions each day.

There was plenty to concern us in the figures – almost a third of people aged 15+ across Europe for example fail to eat at least one portion of fruit or veg on a daily basis. But let’s adopt a football manager’s stance for once and take the positives out of the situation and focus on the fact that almost 33.1% of Britons said they eat 5 a day and the a quarter of all Dutch consumers claimed the same thing. 

The foundation is there then and maybe there are more open doors out there than we are inclined to think. As Karin told us, “nobody thinks it’s a bad thing to recommend eating more vegetables”. So let’s hope both of these government-funded projects find not just ways to walk through those open doors, but also the keys to unlock those that are firmly shut to the idea of eating more vegetables. 

The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference takes place from November 2-4 at the Westergasfabriek. Don’t miss out! Register online now.  



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