As we start another year and face renewed calls for healthier diets, it’s pretty clear that our shopping habits have gone through some pretty radical changes in 2020, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are now buying more ingredients from local suppliers for cooking meals at home from scratch.
And it’s been immensely encouraging for Food NI to see the growth in specialist food stores and the new opportunities now being offered to local suppliers. This trend has ensured the survival of many artisans and farm-based suppliers. We hope that this trend will continue to gather pace in the year ahead.
Interestingly, new reserach that more than three quarters of consumers changed how they planned, purchased and prepared their food during the first national lockdown, with more than half claiming to have eaten more fruit and vegetables. Also encouraging here is the growth in numbers of delis and smaller shops adding seasonal fruit and especially locally sourced vegetables to their offerings.
There will be further scope to expand these items here in the months ahead. While there is now a trade agreement between the UK and EU in place, it is still not clear how this will impact supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables from Europe to Northern Ireland due to the new Irish Sea border.
There should be even greater opportunities for our farmers and retailers to increase supply of fresh vegetables in particular to the specialist shops. Several shops here are responding to the new opportunity by creating bespoke veg and fruit boxes for home cooks in particular and a number are also including menu ideas.
In addition, they should consider making it easier for people to try something new by. recommending ‘simple swaps’ to existing recipes to help normalise healthy, sustainable choices. Simple ingredient swap suggestions can help people liven up family favourites and add new meals to their cooking repertoire.
There are very real benefits for the community and economy from building closer relationships between farmers, retailers and consumers here. While we’ll never be self-sufficient in vegetables, there’s scope to increase output in the future by growing the local marketplace to a much greater extent to encourage our farmers.
Another interesting statistic showing the growing consumption of vegetables in the UK came from the innovative Peas Please initiative of which Food NI is a longstanding supporter. According to Peas Please, UK food businesses served 162 million vegetable portions over the past three years. This impressive statistic is a measure of the success of the promotional drive to promote consumption of vegetables especially among children and young people.
Peas Please is a multi-stakeholder project that works with businesses, civil society and policy makers across the UK to make it easier for people to access vegetables, by getting organisations to pledge to grow, serve or sell more veg. Covid-19 has apparently caused widespread disruption to food businesses increasing their veg consumption targets. Some 72 million additional portions were either sold or served last year…and against the very difficult background of Covid-19 restrictions. Again, we await the outcome of the Brexit trade agreement in the months ahead for any adverse impact on supplies from the likes of Spain’s Murcia region. Some 68 percent of fruit and veg in UK supermarkets is currently imported.
While trends are moving in the right direction, there’s still much more to raise consumption levels. Retail grocery sales, according to supermarket surveys, show that the proportion of veg in a consumer’s shopping basket remains low at seven percent – despite overall grocery sales increasing by 13.7 percent in the 12 weeks leading up to mid-June. There’s a lot to do to reach the Government’s Eat Well target of 20 percent of shopping baskets should be veg.
Clearly further work is required on reshaping our food systems. This must involve greater encouragement of more localised shopping and further targeted campaigns by the Executive to promote local vegetable production for a healthier community.