I have been shopping at my local farmers’ market for a decade. It does not stock ingredients from around the world such as lemons, limes or avocados but you can find a wide range of locally grown produce from apples and squashes, to leaves and herbs, to affordable cuts of meat and sustainable species of seafood like herring, mussels and crab. The ingredients are grown locally, so they are also locked into the seasons: strawberries are only available in summer, asparagus in May and June, courgette flowers, squashes, brassicas and game from late summer through to autumn. I know by name the people who grow the food that we eat and there is something empowering about buying directly from them.
Not everyone in the UK has a local food market – and not everyone can afford to shop at one – but something happened over the last two years that made people begin to appreciate different ways of shopping. The speed with which the supermarket shelves emptied at the start of lockdown highlighted just how insecure our food systems are: it was often easier to find locally produced food in markets and farm shops, delis and online, than in supermarkets. As the panic-buying phenomenon unfolded, producers and farmers could communicate stock availability directly to the consumer through social media channels and establish themselves to a wider demographic. For the first time in decades, the industrialized system that had slowly separated us from the people who grew our food started to unravel and many of us realized that food shopping could be a different, altogether more pleasurable experience.
On the flip side, Covid showed us starkly the causal link between inadequate nutrition, poor human health and our susceptibility to viruses and disease. Britain has the worst diet in Europe, with 52% of our shopping basket consisting of ultra-processed foods. The statistics accompanying Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy (2021) are also terrifying: diet-related illnesses in the UK have been linked to an estimated 90,000 premature deaths – higher than alcohol-related deaths and nearly as much as smoking. As obvious as it may sound, our food choices are a matter of life or death.
The school closures during the pandemic also emphasized the huge inequality in our diets. For many children, school lunch is the one hot meal in their day. I saw this only too clearly when my restaurant, Wahaca, cooked meals for school hampers during that first lockdown, as part of the Chefs in Schools initiative.
The charity is driven by a desire for children on every income to succeed at school – and in life – by being properly nourished by the food they eat. In the three years in which we have operated, we have demonstrated that better is possible – children can be well fed in an affordable way. Government bodies, such as the Department for Education, must get to grips with the fact that good food matters. Schools have food standards but they are not enforced. There is an archaic, blase attitude that food is a side issue in the business of living a healthy life.
Before the pandemic began, I was already locked into the idea that every time I shopped I was making a political statement with my money. We eat three times a day, so three times a day our food choices dictate who, in our complex food system, benefits from our spending power. The pandemic taught us that better food is not a luxury, but a necessity. It keeps us alive, it keeps us well. Two years on, more than ever I feel that everyone needs access to better food, regardless of their background. We must pay our farmers properly and reward them for regenerating the soil and protecting biodiversity; taxing highly processed foods, which cost billions in healthcare, emit carbon, destroy our soil and kill our insects, could fund this. Food is delicious but it is also life – let’s start putting it at the heart of the conversation.
Thomasina Miers is a cook and food writer