Initial summary of the 2016 CURA research project results into Food Justice, Obesity and Austerity in the Cardiff and Welsh Valleys area.
Background to the CURA Research Project
The aim of the research is to investigate the links between austerity and economic deprivation on the one hand and poor diet and obesity on the other. Is access to healthy food and freedom from preventable diseases, such as those caused by obesity, a Human Right? Can we reconcile notions of Social Justice with the fact that the poorest members of society endure worsening economic conditions, reinforced by Austerity policies such as Benefits cut-backs, have the shortest life expectancies, suffer poorer life chances from cradle (and even earlier in life) to grave, and that these negative outcomes are strongly linked to high levels of obesity and related ill-health? Is ‘Austerity’ the only feasible route to follow, or could other economic policies be implemented, with fairer outcomes for all?
What role can ‘Law’ play in improving access to healthy food, and what sort of ‘Law’? Do we require ‘Hard Law’, meaning legislation that must be complied with, or ‘Soft Law’, Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives by food companies and nudge factors to modify consumer demand and behaviour? The institution of Hard Laws may well have unforeseen and unintended consequences, achieving the very opposite of what was desired; for example requiring convenience stores to sell healthy food in order to continue trading may in fact result in the closure of those shops. However the effects of Soft Law are often hard to predict and difficult to monitor.
Fieldwork for this project was conducted during April 2016. The area covered includes Cardiff and the Welsh Valleys, from Cwmbran through Merthyr Tydfil to Maesteg and the Ogmore Valleys in the west. Obesity levels are significantly higher in the poorer Welsh Valleys compared to more affluent but geographically-proximate areas. For example, in 2016, 29% of the population of Blaenau Gwent is obese, with obesity levels in Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Torfaen at between 27% and 28%. This compares with an obesity level of just 18% in the neighbouring and more affluent region of Monmouthshire.
Access to healthy food has three ‘layers’. The topmost, most visible, ‘layer’ is geographical access. Can the consumer physically reach an outlet selling healthy food, where they can purchase their ‘Five-a-Day’? If access is present on this first ‘layer’, for example on foot, by car or bus, or remotely by use of the Internet, then the second ‘layer’ of access is financial. Can the consumer afford to buy healthy food? In most areas there is a ‘health premium’, meaning that healthy food costs more than so-called ‘junk food’; processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt, foods that are calorific but low in essential micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. In less affluent areas, the ‘health premium is wider; is this socially just? If the consumer can both physically access healthy food and afford to buy it, they must still want to consume it and know how to process or cook it. This is the third ‘layer’ of access, the psychological desire to eat healthily and the knowledge of how to do so.
Results to date
To May 2016, the physical access to healthy food has been mapped within the project area. There appear to be significant areas of The Valleys where access to healthy food is totally absent for shoppers on food, and problematical for those relying on buses. South and east of Ebbw Vale, for example, there are stretches of several kilometres along the Valley roads where fresh fruit and vegetable retailing is absent altogether. The physical nature and industrial legacy of the Valleys also creates its own problems of food access. Very steep valley sides mean difficult access to shops for some even when the shop is only a few hundred metres distant. Space along the floor of the Valleys is limited, and besides houses, industrial uses, leisure and retail facilities, there may be up to four transport modes; old canals, railways, the former principal valley road, and a new high speed link road. Note that fast transport links to a deprived area may just as easily allow money to escape, and competition to come in, as to help revitalise the area. This lack of space means limited possibility for alternative sources of healthy food such as allotments; indeed not all the existing allotments appear to be in use, and some sites bore ‘available for rent’ signs.
Click here for map of Cardiff & Valleys retailing, with areas of poor geographical access to fresh fruit and vegetables highlighted.
Clock here for our Food Desert Finder map, giving a wider overview of food retail access in Wales and beyond.
The Valleys have some of the worst deprivation, not just in Wales or the UK but in the EU as a whole. Current analysis of socio-economic indicators and the relations between these and obesity statistics is underway and will be posted here later in 2016. However even upon initial inspection it is clear that the areas of worst deprivation also have the sparsest fresh fruit and vegetable retail provision. The high-speed link roads referred to in the previous section are still subject to lower-than-national-speed-limit restrictions and have frequent roundabouts. This means they may not be wholly effective in attracting new employers, because towns like Merthyr Tydfil are still some 30 minutes driving time from the nearest motorway connection on the M4, and still further from a major international container port. This road system also means higher transport costs for food retailers in the Valleys, especially for perishable fresh foodstuffs that need frequent replenishment. For example one Valleys shop stated that if they wanted to buy cauliflowers it would cost them “over £1 each” wholesale (for the limited quantity they could stock), which is beyond what local customers will pay.
Knowledge of healthy lifestyles appears limited in some Valleys communities. There may be a strong preference for convenience foods, for easy to eat (and cheap to buy) processed meals and takeaway food over and above green vegetables. These convenience, processed, meals are calorie-dense per kilogram and per £, making them a ‘better’ buy for cash strapped and car-less consumers. Although eating healthily is vital for the avoidance of a wide range of illnesses, including arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and much else, the most deprived consumers may have other priorities such as keeping up rent payments or avoidance of utilities cut-off. Policies such as the Bedroom Tax and Benefits Sanctions for missing a Job centre appointment or employer interview do not help. Then there is a strong demand for cheap alcohol such as lagers, and many betting and gambling establishments. Besides diverting funds that could have been spent on healthier food stuffs, this alcohol demand restricts fruit and vegetable sales in another way too. Consumers demand the alcohol be chilled, even in winter, also the soft sugary ‘fruit’ drinks; neither actually needs chilling, for preservation purposes. However thirsty cyclists and hikers may want the soft drinks cool, and probably clever marketing initiatives have persuaded the consumer that lagers must be chilled also, and putting ‘fruit’ drinks in chillers can give the illusion that they have fresh fruit which would have to be cooled. Many small and medium sized independent food stores have a considerable percentage of their shelf space, frequently a quarter or more, dedicated to chillers which, whilst they might be used for fresh fruit and vegetables, instead contain a wide range of lagers and other alcohol, alongside the sugary soft drinks, sandwiches, meat pies and other processed foods. Chillers of course throw out heat and the shop then becomes warmer, accelerating the spoilage rate of fresh produce, meaning more wastage if the shop did attempt to stock it. Some chillers have a facility for ejecting excess heat out the back but this will not be possible if the retail area backs onto another room or the back of the hillside; many convenience stores are very small, and have evidently begun life as the living room in an ordinary terraced miner’s house, backing onto a steep valley side. The cost of running the chillers can be high, perhaps £2,000 or more a quarter in electricity, so only the most profitable lines can be stocked in them; others bear the brand mark of well-known soft drinks or alcohol producers, so must be used for selling only their products. Without the alcohol sales many smaller stores might cease trading altogether or convert to a non-food usage.
A wide range of factors need tackling, often in a simultaneous and co-ordinated fashion, if the food justice situation in the Valleys is to be remediated. These factors include food access and food demand, consumer preferences, low pay and Benefits levels (the recent rise in the Minimum Wage has in part been cancelled out by hours and perks cutbacks by employers), retail economics, and land usage and access issues. As always, many of these issues require not a one-off imitative but ongoing founding. Once again, Austerity, the commonest policy of governments from Greece to Wales, a policy perhaps enforced by the neo-liberal globalised financial system, despite any democratic choices made at the ballot box, precludes such ongoing inclusive measures.
Are there affordable yet effective solutions that can produce Food Justice for all and ameliorate obesity and ill health from poor diet? Further research may give the answer. More to come on this site, soon.
For contact details of the CURA researchers, see foot of main site page.