Today is UN World Soil Day. Concerns over the health of agricultural soil might not seem like an issue that would concern us, living in a major city. However, with the highest levels of obesity found in urban areas, improving access to healthy food has to be a key priority.
The UK doesn’t eat enough fresh fruit and veg. Only 29% of adults and 18% of children eat the recommended daily amount of fruit or veg and almost 10% of reception aged children have a BMI categorised as obese, growing to 20% of children in year 6.
Programs to encourage better diets are valuable but the problem goes much deeper than education. People know that an apple is better for them than a bag of crisps, but often the choice isn’t that straightforward. Fresh produce (especially organic foods) are considerably more expensive that junk food alternatives and aren’t as readily available in low-income communities, where obesity levels are highest. Many Bristol residents live in ‘food deserts’ with limited access to affordable fresh food.
Due to a decade of government led austerity, many families are limited to purchasing cheap food of low nutritional value. The two-tiered food system cannot continue. It must not be the case that only the wealthiest people can afford to purchase healthy and nutritious food while the most vulnerable families in our city can only afford to purchase food that is high in salt, fat and sugar. The lack of affordable food choices in the UK condemns a generation of low-income children to poor health, shortening their life expectancy and reducing the long-term likelihood of escaping poverty.
To reverse trends in malnutrition and diseases across the city, there needs to be a radical re-imagining of how we produce and consume food – every citizen in Bristol needs access to healthy and nutritional food and no Bristolian should go hungry.
We are working hard to become a Gold Sustainable Food City, developing a stronger Bristol food system that promotes dietary health for all citizens. Our Bristol Going For Gold campaign is encouraging a citywide commitment to reduce food waste across the city and improve catering and procurement by increasing the weighting placed on food quality, with local production being a key consideration.
We also need to grow more food locally and encourage urban farming right here in Bristol. To tackle food poverty we aim that by 2040, 15% of Bristol’s annual fruit and vegetable supply will come from a network of market gardens and farms within the city-limits. This could mean more high-tech solutions from companies like Grow Bristol, who are using innovative hydroponic systems. It will also mean increasing community gardens across Bristol to allow more people the opportunity to grow their own vegetables.
In my 2020 campaign for Mayor, I pledge to have community gardens and allotments in every ward and I will pledge that affordable fresh food will be available within a 10-minute radius from every home by 2031.
It may surprise you to know that Bristol has almost 1,500 hectares of designated farmland, some of it in the top 3% of food growing land in the country, but as we wrestle with the housing crisis and a city which will grow, it creates a difficult tension. It is essential that we build more housing to accommodate an ever-growing population, but we cannot lose green spaces that are essential for environmental health and physical activity.
Changing the food infrastructure and supply chains, I want a permanent food hub in the heart of Bristol so that small-scale farmers, growers and food producers can sell their produce throughout the year in a high-spec facility. This would also provide a new landmark for the city and provide a gathering place for the city to share food and build connections.
Healthy food must be something that we can all afford and enjoy – our farmland and soil is at the root of achieving that goal.