Strengthening our communities through food

A message to HM Govt – we are already socially prescribing vegetables here in Lambeth!
By Sue Sheehan, director of Healthy Living Platform
The recently published National Food Strategy (read the full report here) addresses the complex mesh of social, health and climate issues related to food. Among its many conclusions, it recommends that free fruit and vegetables be ‘prescribed’ to families that are struggling to put healthy food on their tables.
This is something that Healthy Living Platform (HLP) has been doing for some time.
HLP was originally set up to support people on low incomes to eat more healthily. We went through a long service design process and concluded, as this report does, that it is not enough to educate people about healthy eating and tell them to ‘use their willpower’, when they live in an obesogenic environment – that is, one that tends to cause obesity and diet-related illness through restricted choices and low affordability. 
Instead our programme offers lots of activities aimed at helping people to be healthier, many of which involve cooking and eating a vegetarian meal together and taking a large bag of vegetables home with them afterwards, mainly sourced from City Harvest and FareShare surplus food programmes. 
Immediately participants in the programme report that they are eating more healthily – resisting the urge to buy a takeaway and using up their free veg in home-cooked meals. 
Most people in the UK are not eating enough vegetables, but the gap widens the poorer you get. According to the National Food Strategy report, the poorest 10% of British people eat on average 42% less fruit and vegetables than recommended, while the richest eat 13% less.
Many of those who receive our free veg bags describe feeling inspired to experiment with using new vegetables, and look forward to finding out what is in their bag each week and compare ideas about what to cook.
Following the lockdowns and our need to extend food provision to a wider audience, HLP has adopted a ‘pantry’ model, establishing mini food shops on our local estates and in children’s centres. People contribute £5 each visit and get to choose 10 items of fresh fruit and veg, plus 10 store-cupboard items.
These are basic items that we have purchased in bulk, including culturally relevant and appealing vegetables that might not turn up in surplus food supplies. Increasingly the pantries are run by the recipients themselves, which increases our capacity to set up more pantries and food projects at more sites.
Our experience is that by making it easier for people to choose and buy healthy food through the pantry system, they are not only helping themselves but also others. They are making friends, strengthening their community and creating a healthier, more sustainable environment to live in. 
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