Blog by Lauren Blake, IFSTAL Education Coordinator, LCIRAH.
24 October 2017, London. Hosted by the Food Foundation, WWF, Food Cardiff and Nourish Scotland, the Vegetable Summit brought together public authorities, businesses, leading civil society organisation and academics, to pledge actions to increase consumption of vegetables (veg) in a bid to address health and diet-related disease. The event focused on the campaign, Peas Please, calling for “a pledge for more veg”. It is trying to increase both the supply and demand of vegetables in the UK and make it the norm that 20% of a shopping basket is made up of vegetables. Currently, over 80% of the UK population is consuming too little veg (for more context, information and facts, see the Food Foundation website). Peas Please is a three year initiative, running from 2017 until 2020. A summit will be held each year to track the progress of the pledges, the journeys of the many organisations who made them, and a report will be produced at end.
The Vegetable Summit was held at City Hall, London, in a building aptly known as the Onion (amongst less favourable nicknames!). There were also simultaneous events taking place in Cardiff, Wales, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Journalist Sheila Dillon, with her infamous voice from the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme (see also: the 2016 IFSTAL public lecture), guided us through the day as our host. A jovial atmosphere was created, with staff identifiable by their giant bright vegetable costumes, mics adorned in vegetable plaques, an entertaining live music duo between sessions with amusing lyrics about vegetables, and panel speakers were challenged to incorporate as many vegetable puns as possible, rewarded with a ding from a bell!
The day comprised of several panel discussions, beginning with production, then shopping and eating at home, real life challenges, eating out, towns and cities, and finishing with “what next”. There was an impressive array of organisations in attendance on the panels: large and small businesses like Greggs, Sodexo, Tesco and The Healthy Food Company; government and industry representatives like National Farmers Union, DEFRA, and Brighton and Hove Council; civil society and third sector groups like Sustainable Food Cities Network and the Soil Association; and public commentators with direct experience like Dr Rangan Chatterjee, Kathleen Kerridge and Jason O’Rourke. After lunch there was also the announcement of the winner of a creative advertising competition to promote vegetables, awarded by campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
From my perspective, the day was excellent for raising the issue of increasing veg production and consumption, promoting it and getting a diverse body of sectors on the same page for a simple, key message with steps towards achieving change. The panels primarily consisted of different organisations and companies pledging and outlining the ways they will commit to increasing veg use and consumption. A range of issues surfaced on varying topics such as supply chains, subsidies, difficulty getting kids to eat veg, the role of government pressure, accessibility, affordability, culture (interestingly, there’s little difference in the veg intake between rich and poor people), etc. Whilst there were only a few brief mentions of a systems approach, primarily from Professor Martin White (University of Cambridge), overall I felt that a more systems thinking approach was lacking from the day. It was difficult, as it often is, to integrate the complex nuances of a systems approach into a (necessarily?) simplified message. The focus was on more veg, full stop. The details on fundamentally how, in what ways, what kind of veg, what type of production, and questioning if simply more veg alone will answer society’s dietary and environmental problems, were rather glossed over. As Giles Quick (Kantar Group) remarked, are we looking for more veg on top of unhealthy food consumption (therefore additional calories), or veg replacing unhealthy food? To some extent, though I don’t doubt it’s still positive, the pledges somewhat seemed a publicity and public relations exercise for food businesses ticking the ‘healthy’ and ‘responsible’ box (and could have been more ambitious, as suggested by Corinna Hawkes, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London), rather than being particularly reflective and critical about what and how they currently do things, whilst addressing some of those issues as part of the pledge for more veg.
By the end of the day, there were some largely unanswered questions that had come to my mind: What about achieving variety? What about equity along the supply chain from producer to consumer? What about pressures on families (especially women) to fulfil this dietary ill? What about production systems – biodiversity, sustainability and environmental issues? What about quality of food (especially in light of growing research on global nutrient collapse)? What about residues of chemical pesticides and fertilizers? What about the role of government? What about the wider economic system in which food businesses operate? How do we manage and minimise waste, particularly given veg is so perishable, on a wide scale? Could there be some unintended, negative consequences to this simple aim to increase vegetable consumption? Perhaps these will feature more prominently in the next summits.
The Vegetable Summit and its important, ambitious Peas Please campaign, is aimed at population- rather than individual-level intervention, which I believe is appropriate for larger scale change. IFSTAL will follow the progress of this movement with deep interest, and in the meantime, in our own pledge for more veg, continue to offer plenty of vegetable-based foods at all our events!
Lauren Blake is the IFSTAL Education Coordinator for the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH; comprising researchers from Royal Veterinary College, School of Oriental and African Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). She is an anthropologist and human geographer with research interests in malnutrition, food security and development, food activism and policy, and food systems.