Stephen Jardine: Healthy food must be our next big priority

We've addressed smoking, and now the focus is on how alcohol can harm our health. Diet has to follow, says Stephen Jardine

The five-a-day strategy for fruit and vegetables is well known, but figures show that not enough people are putting it into action.
The five-a-day strategy for fruit and vegetables is well known, but figures show that not enough people are putting it into action.

A Good Food Nation. That was the aspiration for Scotland unveiled by the Scottish Government 18 months ago. A Bill winding it’s way through Holyrood commits to making this “a country where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they buy, serve, and eat day by day”.

This week that vision seemed further away than ever. The latest Scottish Health Survey shows our intake of fruit and vegetables is actually falling at a time when it should be rising. According to the Scottish Government figures, most adults manage an average of just three portions a day, down from 3.3 just two years ago. Only 20 per cent of the population are reaching the recommended target of five portions a day.

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The devil is in the detail. Women and middle class consumers are closest to target consumption with working class men and children often very far away.

Only 11 per cent of boys at school are eating recommended levels.

All this matters because as our vegetable consumption drops, our weight as a nation rises. Two thirds of Scots are now overweight with 29 per cent classed as obese. Eating more vegetables can also protect against cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. So if eating more fruit and veg is a no brainer, why aren’t we doing it?

That is the subject of a special one day Veg Summit I will be chairing in Edinburgh at the end of this month. Organised by Nourish Scotland, it aims to put fruit and veg on the national agenda and make the changes necessary to allow us to eat better.

“Five a day is one of the most recognised health messages in the world but we’re still not doing it so we’ve founded this summit to campaign for change,” said Nourish Scotland Director Pete Ritchie. “We’ve collaborated with over 150 organisations including growers, retailers and Government to identify the challenges to veg consumption and find ways in which these barriers can be overcome.”

Partly that comes down to the way vegetables are packaged and sold to us. Imagine if the millions spent down the years flogging cans of beans in a high sugar tomato sauce had instead been spent making fresh beans look attractive? It also comes down to how vegetables are introduced to children and presented on menus. In many Mediterranean countries with healthier diets, vegetables are served as part of the dish. We still see a plate of either mushy or undercooked veg as a side order, an afterthought, easily overlooked.

Government has a key role to drive this which is why the Good Food Nation policy exists but we all have a part to play. Retailers need to step up to their responsibilities and accept the way they display and sell fresh produce can deliver change. And commercial caterers serving those hard-to-reach groups such as working class men and children need to overhaul what they offer.

Above all else, we need to tackle this now. It could be two years before a Good Food Nation Bill becomes law and at this rate of decline, that is too late. We’ve tackled smoking in this country and we’re addressing the harm alcohol does. Food needs to be our next great national priority.