Last week, Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Research (CEDAR), released a new interactive data visualisation tool that measures the ‘food environment’ within different counties in England, with some of the parameters being the density of takeaway shops within different postcodes, or the number of available supermarkets versus the number of convenience stores within a given region or neighbourhood.
Further Guardian analysis of the data revealed that some of the most deprived areas in the country were also the areas with the highest number of takeaways, with the borough of Blackburn (a local authority district with a very high number of deprived neighbourhoods according to the index of Multiple Deprivation 2015) being highlighted as the area with the highest proportion of takeaways in England – one for every 625 residents. With more than a third of the borough’s retail outlets selling fast food and almost 7 in 10 adults in the area classified as obese, it is encouraging that the local authorities are working on limiting planning permission for shops selling high calorie foods.
At the same time however, it is interesting to note that more affluent areas of the country (such as central London and Manchester) have just started offering a service that until 2017 was a mere utopian dream to hungover young professionals everywhere: home delivery of McDonald’s via UberEats, Uber’s food delivery service.
Similarly, in 2016, a Mintel report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency highlighted a widespread belief among diners and foodies that gourmet burgers were healthier than fast food, and an increasing demand for indulgence on food-centred nights out.
Do these trends mean that London is becoming a fatty food paradise? On the contrary, the trends co-exist with what we have referred to before as ‘healthy hedonism’ – the marriage of leisure with healthy lifestyles and activities that imply less destructive consumption (such as smoking or exceeding daily alcohol units). A 2016 Waitrose Food and Drink report for example found that Dry January is more popular than ever, and sales of mini hot cross buns at Easter (as opposed to normal sized hot cross buns) have risen sharply.
So while indulgent comfort foods like mac and cheese pizza are becoming more popular, so is conscious, healthy eating, such as the consumption of ‘ancient grains’ (quinoa, farro) as alternatives to wheat and carbohydrates. While this type of polarisation shows just how central to the expression of our identity food has become, the fact that there are numerous pockets of the country where residents struggle to eat well makes the polarisation economic as well as aspirational. While the latter is happening due to a combination of lack of availability (food deserts), tight budgets and unhealthy habits, councils such as Barking & Dagenham are trying to respond to the ‘fast food crisis’ by increasing regulation and forcing new takeaways to offer healthier menu options and/or pay pricey levies.
With Brexit looming on the horizon, the food-related implications have not failed to make themselves visible: from hardship-driven food bank usage to healthy imported foods such as fruit and vegetables potentially becoming more expensive after the UK leaves the EU, UK agribusiness and food manufacturers will have to partner with the right stakeholders (such as tech companies, or educational platforms) to strike the right balance between affordability, nutrition, trends such as deregulated mobile eating and more sustainable food systems.