By Rosa Robinson, March 2016
We know that changing an entire food system calls for big thinking. We talk about systems, actors, populations and places, but that means it’s easy to forget the impact on individuals. But if people can’t easily buy good food, for whatever reason, there is a cost in human misery, never mind the impact on national finances.
I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the long-term health outcomes faced by people living in the poorest communities. The papers make grim reading. Low socioeconomic status exposes people to higher levels of stress – people have less control over their lives, less security and less resilience to cope with change and adversity. And this constant stress makes people more susceptible to a range of illnesses and in, particular anxiety and depression.
Depression is a serious and pervasive problem in Wales. The overall cost of poor mental health in Wales is an estimated 7.2 billion pounds a year, and it’s a long established fact that people living in the most deprived areas have higher levels of depression and anxiety than the rest of the population – where rates of physical ill-health are also higher and health protecting behaviours are lower.
Over the last decade and beyond, studies have examined the link between fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of depression. In 2015, a team of researchers synthesised the findings of several previous studies. Their findings indicate that fruit and vegetable intake are associated with reduced risk of depression.
We all have a right to live well but, right now, not everybody can. Access to fresh, healthy food is a fundamental requirement for good physical and mental health (numerous studies and meta-analyses indicate the importance of fruit and vegetable intake in reducing a range of chronic illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers).
It’s important to note that it is in the poorest communities that availability of fresh, affordable, healthy food is least available. I’ve heard it argued many times that there’s no point making fruit and vegetables more available because poorer communities won’t buy it anyway. This is stigmatisation.
The link between fruit and vegetable intake and depression is important, but we mustn’t neglect the likelihood that the correlation is bidirectional. People battling stress and depression may not eat fruit and vegetables because self-care isn’t a priority when there’s a ‘black dog’ nipping at your ankles. The truth is that stress creates adversity and diminishes people’s ability to cope and that has a significant affect on health behaviour.
I’ll sum it up: Living in poverty is stressful; stress causes illness; poorer communities suffer more physical and mental ill-health than the rest of the population; fruit and vegetables play a significant role in keeping people healthy; fresh, healthy food isn’t a convenient or affordable option for many poor communities. And so the cycle of ill-health and poverty perpetuates.
It is unconscionable to ignore this inequality.
Fruit and vegetables are simple symbols of a human right to live well. They should be pinned to our masts and raised high because fairness in the food system is a fundamental part of achieving wellbeing for future generations, at every level of society.
Rosa is researching health behaviour and poverty at Bristol University and is Director of Work With Meaning, a community interest company that does research and social change projects in vulnerable communities across Wales and the wider UK.