The debate on food poverty has been a hot political potato but the dilemma is not only how do we eat well on a budget but how do we eat well and what do we eat?
It’s a political hot potato!
While multiple agencies, charities and individuals are investing time, money and energy in trying to make sure the children of some of this country’s poorest families do not go hungry, MPs still eat in subsidized restaurants in The House of Commons and some don’t seem to understand this dichotomy. Their recent support for the hospitality sector through ‘eat out to help out’ just didn’t get to the root of food poverty, while funding for community and school healthy eating workshops has also diminished.
There is an absolute requirement to solve food poverty in the short term. This is the “sticking plaster” approach but there is a long-term requirement to invest and inform in the life skills of knowing how to cook and what to cook while also making cooking easier, nutritious and fun.
For anyone on a very low income it’s not easy! Is vegetarian cooking the answer?
I spoke recently to Lizzy Hughes who runs a friendly vegan cooking school in Malvern for adults, students and children. Lizzy has enjoyed teaching her cookery courses for many years and said, ‘the great thing about cooking vegetarian and vegan meals is that it’s affordable. A shopping bag of fresh vegetables, tins of beans and pulses can feed a family on a tight budget for a week but people need access to cooking equipment and to know how to cook.’
While Lizzy has taught many adults she has also lead multiple after school clubs teaching children to cook. ‘We cooked quick one pan meals, which the pupils took home to share with their families. It’s been lovely to bump into some of them again in adult life, and discover they are still making my spicy chick peas!’
Food habits are continually changing and supermarkets stock an incredible choice but as Lizzy added, ‘There has been a huge increase in packaged ready meals and the availability of take away food. These are not always very nutritious and has resulted in a greater number of people not having the knowledge to plan and cook meals themselves.’
In an earlier interview I had with Monica Price from Love Food, Hate Waste, Monica reasoned,
“The benefits of eating a variety of different vegetables is very simple – they provide some excellent vitamins and minerals to ensure you keep healthy! Eating anything dark green and leafy, for example cabbage or spinach, provides folic acid, calcium, iron and vitamin K – essential for good health.”
Obviously a vegetarian/vegan diet may not be everybody’s choice but it is certainly offers food for thought and for many the choice is ethical. My friend Michelle Alexandra said, ‘I take responsibility for which products I use and how I live my life, but I won’t ask an animal to sacrifice its life for me.’ Michelle also feels she has gained health benefits from her vegan diet:
“Since only eating plant based foods, my body feels much more healthy and I rarely suffer with seasonal colds and viruses. I also really love the seasonality and variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs.”
So, does meat still have a significant future within our food consumption?
Meat is an excellent source of protein and not all meat is expensive. I survived for years buying cheap cuts and cooking them in a slow cooker along with vegetables bought from the outdoor market. Meat helps build and repair muscle as well as helping to maintain healthy hair, bones, skin and blood. Due to its High Biological Value (HBV), protein obtained from meat is easily digested and thus absorbed quickly and effectively by the body. Also, according to my friend and semi retired cook Garston Phillips, ‘I love eating meat, it tastes great!’
There are however, multiple opposing views!
Professor Nigel Scollan Director of Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast states:
“I believe animal-based proteins are very favourable compared with plant-based proteins. Ruminants (cows and sheep) in particular are very positive because they convert plant-based material that’s not edible for humans, such as grass, into high-value, high-nutrient protein.”
However, Professor Peter Smith, Chair in Plant and Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen thinks:
“All meats have a higher climate, land and water footprint than the same quantity of plant-based foods. In the worst case (meat from ruminants, like beef and lamb), this can be 10–100 times greater than plant-based foods. The best foods by far, from an environmental perspective, are plant-based.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Holden, Director, Sustainable Food Trust has said:
“In the UK, two-thirds of the farmed area is currently pasture (grass and clover). These grasslands play a vital role in maintaining the soil carbon bank, as well as producing food we can eat, through the unique ability of ruminants to digest cellulose. Not only does this maintain a healthy soil, but also the land works as a carbon sink – absorbing carbon dioxide. So, if you’re eating grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy, you can do so with a clear conscience, knowing you are part of the solution, not the problem.
Chiara Vitali, Forests Campaigner, Greenpeace UK has pointed out that the world’s top scientists calculate that to avoid climate change we need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy we’re eating by about 70%
“I think people have got the message that eating less red meat is better health-wise, but what many may not know is that switching from, say, beef to chicken is causing havoc for the world’s forests. That’s because vast amounts of animal feed used to fatten poultry in the UK are imported from South America, where agricultural expansion means the destruction of natural ecosystems.”
Maybe the answer to this particular food dilemma is not just a case of switching from one meat to another or going vegetarian or vegan (unless one wants to). A more nuanced solution may be reducing our meat intake, understanding where it is sourced, protecting our food standards while making more use of vegetables, pulses and seeds to create an affordable, fun, balanced diet that is healthy for us and the planet.
It’s a food dilemma. And it’s complicated!
Ed: Martin was previously a food correspondent for Herefordshire and Worcestershire Life and Taste Magazine.
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