The Friday Digest: Jubilee cheers give way to food fears

The long bank holiday weekend in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee provided some much-needed cheer for hospitality businesses – that’s if the 90-minute wait for fish and chips experienced by the author at a local event was a fair gauge of the nation’s demand for hospitality. By Nick Hughes.

Still, it’s impossible to gloss over the perfect storm of challenges facing businesses at the moment: from labour shortages to the rampant food and energy price inflation impacting costs and consumer spending power.

This week, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) published a detailed analysis of the public’s current interests, needs and concerns around food with research showing the cost of food is now a major future concern for three out of four (76%) UK consumers.

A separate FSA report found the number of people using a food bank or food charity has grown from 9% in March 2021 to 15% in March 2022. Most worryingly of all, more than one in five (22%) people surveyed in March 2022 said they had skipped a meal or cut down the size of meals because they did not have enough money to buy food.

In this context, it’s little wonder that fresh calls have been made for the government to extend eligibility for free school meals to all children from families in receipt of universal credit. That’s according to a letter seen by the BBC and sent to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi by education unions and other organisations claiming to represent 1 million school staff in England.

The government is also being urged to provide more support to public sector foodservice providers to tackle inflationary pressures. The Grocer reported a warning from the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) that support for some public sector contracts, particularly free school meals, has lagged well behind inflation for years and that the recent trajectory of price increases is putting huge pressure on distributors to maintain contracted food supply and standards.

Returning to the FSA/FSS research, it also addressed public attitudes to ethics, the environment and food systems as well as health and nutrition. The analysis found the public didn’t feel much agency in terms of their wider interests around food system ethics and environment; their values tended to be sacrificed for more immediate drivers, especially in response to financial pressures. Indeed, price often won out as a driver of food choices, leading many people to make uncomfortable compromises around health, environment and wider ethical values, and even – for some more pressured groups – basics like safety or sufficiency. 

Business was assumed to be the most powerful force in shaping our food systems, but trust was low with 56% of survey respondents expressing concern for the future over the power of ‘big’ food manufacturers and retailers.

Trust in government decision-makers was even lower: only 32% of people trusted the government to act in their best interests. A report in The Guardian this week that the national food strategy for England is likely to be watered down does little to shift the impression that, where food policy is concerned, ministers remain content to leave it largely to the market.

This feels dangerous at a time when senior diplomats are accusing Russia of using food supplies as a “stealth missile” in its war against Ukraine. Time will tell whether complacency will ultimately come back to bite our leaders; and the citizens they are duty bound to protect.

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