FOOD CULTURE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR COVID-19. NOW WE MUST FIX IT

Over the past two months we have slowly entered the ‘new normal’. Town centres are quieter, we must keep one-metre apart and of course when we are not eating, we must wear a mask — but how much we are willing to do relies on how vulnerable we see ourselves to the effects of this virus.

The over-70s especially must take extra precaution, as must those with ‘underlying health conditions’. It has also disproportionately affected people from deprived communities.

But what links all of these groups is the proportion of these populations who are also overweight.

This is no minority group. In fact, almost two-thirds of the entire UK population are overweight or obese. For those 65 or older of age, this is even higher at 74% and amongst children, those from the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than those from the least.

The consequences of this are quite simple. Due to an increased prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and hypertension, if you are overweight or obese the chances of experiencing poorer outcomes from this virus are far higher.

In this essay series I have already spoken about this briefly in the wider context of our food culture and how it is damaging to people’s health. But I felt that it was important to look at this in more detail, because our poor food culture has not only been responsible for so many excess deaths due to coronavirus, but for the very existence of this strain.

It has been widely established that while the exact source of first transmission is unknown, it is likely to have come from Wuhan’s live food markets. These markets are the ultimate extreme of a society that cares not about its people, only to give them cheap food at any cost to their health.

Factory farming and live food markets are hotbeds for disease to spread — first between animals and then on to humans. Intense production increases the risk of the disease emerging, with close confinement leading to a rapid spread

Population growth and climate change have also meant the disruption to animals’ natural habitats and provided more opportunities for obscure viruses to transfer to people. Biodiversity is vital for the protection not only of wildlife habitats but of the human population — it is a firewall that universal farming methods have breached, increasing our exposure to diseases such as Ebola, Zika virus and malaria.

COVID-19 is not the first and will not be the last time that a dangerous food culture causes disease and in turn, causes excess deaths as a result. 70% of all new infectious diseases of the past 80 years originated from animals and the exploitation of their habitats for farming, tourism and urbanisation as high-yield, intensive food production grew.

We have to adapt and create a better food system that minimises risks of outbreaks, or it is only a matter of time before this happens again — perhaps with an even more deadly disease — and we can lessen the impact of any such virus in the future, by creating a healthier population of people.

MM Grocery in our E&C Market in London

This change must start at the top of the global supply chain, where we must be ethical so that the spread of disease is contained and the environment is protected. There are clear links between the unhealthiest foods in our system and increased loss of biodiversity — products such as palm oil, sugar and other ingredients used in highly-processed foods.

We must also encourage and reward small-scale producers by buying from them and not large conglomerates who do not uphold health and safety standards. In our current system, these smallholder producers are restricted in accessing markets, meaning their yield is often wasted.

Food waste itself is one of our greatest environmental threats, and is the biggest economic threat to farmers. By putting their interests first, we will see the combined benefits of protecting our health, protecting the environment by supporting sustainable farming methods, and protecting the livelihoods of independent producers.

As I have spoken about before, we must then end the dominant culture of food processing and additions of artificial ingredients into our food system. Naturally-occurring bioactive ingredients within food such as flour have a natural medicinal effect, and yet all too often businesses will use long-lasting 0–0 flour with no nutritional value.

We must embrace all food in its natural form, using only the freshest ingredients and in simple combinations that are easy to understand. Everyone should know exactly how their food is made and where it comes from — if you do not then you should not go near to it.

It is the cheapening of food that has led to the obesity pandemic, and this is linked to the final aspect of our food culture that we must change — food security.

People do not have access to the food they need to be healthy. Just look at those statistics I mentioned earlier. If you are a child in poverty, you are twice as likely to be obese than your peers from a more privileged area.

Why? Because our supermarkets sell processed food, ready meals and candy at cheaper prices than fresh fruit and vegetables. Because fast food is cheaper than good food. Because society has deemed it more economically valuable to feed people junk than natural ingredients.

If you do not have the money or the time to buy and make fresh food, you will become a victim of this. It is, as I touched on in my previous piece, baffling to me that the Government allowed fast food chains to take part in the Eat Out To Help Out scheme while launching a campaign against obesity. It was short-sighted and not looking at the underlying causes of obesity itself — putting the blame on consumers for their unhealthy habits and not the deep-rooted societal issues that gave them no chance.

What we also witnessed in the early days of the pandemic was panic-buying across the world as concerns rose about disruption to the global supply chain. This put many more vulnerable in society at a disadvantage; they may not have had the cash flow on hand to be able to stock up and with shelves empty, others will have been rendered unable to even do the most basic of essential shopping.

MM Grocery in our E&C Market in London

At Mercato Metropolitano, we remained open throughout the pandemic not for our casual visitors coming to enjoy a day out, but for our community who need us. Our grocery store was open for them to purchase healthy and affordable food, and we delivered more than one thousand food bags to vulnerable families that needed them.

The closure of schools also meant that many children’s only source of even semi-nutritious food was cut off, and it only took the campaigning of a professional footballer to ensure that this support was maintained over the summer holidays on a national scale.

But this is not a new problem resulting from this pandemic. Every summer during the six-week closure of schools in the UK, the most vulnerable families to do not have access to food — a problem that Mercato Metropolitano recognised as soon as we opened in London in 2017.

In response, we created a summer programme for school children in our area — with events and activities from cookery classes to gardening to yoga — and fed hundreds of them with their families through this. It meant we could offer nutritious meals to those who needed them most in a way that provided them with dignity.

In front of our E&C Market in London, on our first day of food bag deliveries to the vulnerable families

However, this is just putting on a plaster for a problem that requires a serious operation. It is a problem that needs government intervention. We have to ensure that everyone has the access they need, to the food they need, when they need it or we risk those already living with food insecurity to suffer more greatly.

Tackling this problem seriously is not only good for the families who suffer, it will benefit society as a whole because we will have citizens more engaged in their minds and in less danger of chronic diseases in the future.

Food has to be at the centre of any policy in any city or country otherwise you end up with the culture we have now; of processed, high-in-fat, high-in-sugar products sold at a cut price to benefit the corporations selling them, but which transfer the cost of all the other issues I mentioned earlier to the consumer: loss of biodiversity, climate change and the economic death of smallholder producers.

Mercato Metropolitano is doing as much as we can, but there needs to be widespread change to our food culture that protect the livelihoods of citizens vulnerable to disease through the obesity society has forced upon them, and to mitigate the possibility of a similar pandemic happening again by supporting better standards for farming, the protection of animals and global biodiversity.

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Andrea Rasca

Founder & Chief Executive Dreamer, Mercato Metropolitano. A global movement driving sustainable food development to tackle the world’s biggest societal issues