Give peas a chance

The Food Foundation’s new campaign could finally be the spur to get Britain eating more veg, writes Nick Hughes.

It’s not often that the entire food sector unites around a single ambition. So hats off to the Food Foundation, whose Peas Please campaign has inspired businesses, government, civil society and public sector bodies to pull together to boost the persistently low levels of vegetable consumption in the UK.

The starting gun on Peas Please was officially fired at a series of aptly named “veg summits” in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh on October 24th at which food companies and other organisations pledged to help people eat more veg.

They ranged from Greggs’s concrete and ambitious pledge to sell an additional 15m portions of veg between January 2018 and October 2020 to the rather more pliable commitment by Mars Food to add veg to on-pack and online recipes, as well as championing increased veg with its catering customers.

But even those, like Mars, whose pledges sat at the softer end of the spectrum could claim to have stolen a march on companies which have yet to make any commitment at all.

The London summit held at City Hall produced a lot of earnest talk of the need to make vegetables more appealing to eat and more economically viable to produce and sell. But arguably the most important contribution of the day came from the Tesco policy adviser Tim Smith, who stated the importance of companies being measured against their pledges. “What gets measured gets done,” he said purposefully.

Smith was speaking from Tesco’s own experience of publishing food waste data for its own operations. And he was right to flag the importance of regular and rigorous evaluation. One of the main criticisms levelled against the government’s defunct Public Health Responsibility Deal was a lack of systematic reporting that left confusion as to what it had actually achieved.

The Food Foundation will look to avoid such ambiguity by holding further veg summits every year up until 2020, supplemented by an annual report tracking progress against the commitments.

This itself will be a difficult undertaking since some pledges lend themselves more to measurement than others. It should be reasonably straightforward to track a joint pledge by BaxterStorey and PwC to increase from 16% to 20% the overall percentage of fruit and vegetables in the meals offered via BaxterStorey restaurants in PwC’s offices across the UK by the end of 2018. Less so the Co-op’s pledge to promote Peas Please to its customers and indicate which cooking sauces include one of your five a day “where possible”. (Full details of all the pledges are available via the Pease Please website.)

It’s for this reason that Professor Martin White, the programme lead for food behaviours and public health interventions at the University of Cambridge’s centre for diet and activity research, stressed the importance of the food industry cooperating to share data on vegetable sales to help demonstrate that pledges are leading to whole-system change.

Bringing other parties on board will also be key to Peas Please achieving its aim of making it easier for everyone to eat veg. The Food Foundation, along with its partners Nourish Scotland, Food Cardiff and WWF, will continue to encourage organisations to make their own pledges. Pete Ritchie, the executive director of Nourish Scotland, told Footprint that a particular emphasis would be put on engaging those companies, such as Greggs, for which a pledge would result in a significant shift in the balance of their food offerings, rather than those such as Pret which are already forging ahead on the “more veg” agenda.

The scale of the challenge is not to be underestimated. The Food Foundation’s executive director, Anna Taylor, noted that UK consumption of veg remains stubbornly low, with dangerous consequences for public health. The Food Foundation’s own data shows that UK consumers are buying only a third of the amount of veg recommended by health experts. The organisation cites figures from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showing that as many as 20,000 premature deaths annually in the UK could be avoided if we all ate more veg.

Peas Please could well be the vehicle that finally puts veg consumption back on the path to growth, so long as the sector’s bold words translate into good deeds.

Additional reporting by David Burrows

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