Comment: It's time to teach, not preach

Ravneet Gill explains how to change our eating habits for a more sustainable future, starting with opening the conversation to lower-income communities.

Ravneet Gill is a pastry chef, author and founder of Countertalk, a platform that aims to improve hospitality workplaces.

I'm sure you've noticed a price rise in your food shopping recently, or a higher bill at the end of your meal. But price inflation is affecting certain foods more than others. In the UK, staples like pasta, crisps, bread, minced beef and rice have jumped in price over the past year, and this will undoubtedly affect the worst off in society the most, especially those with children. This is a global issue, too. Food security is paramount, and the past two years have really shown us just how fragile our systems are. 

Look at what's happening in Sri Lanka. The government's well-intentioned organic-farming policy, which banned the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in 2021, has led to devastating consequences. Reports show that the domestic production of rice, a staple crop and critical element of the Sri Lankan diet, dropped 20% in the first six months, while the government was forced to import $450 million of the grain as the domestic price surged 50%. 

Even worse, a production collapse in tea, a key export, has resulted in massive economic losses for Sri Lanka. Food inflation is estimated to be over 50% and the country looks gripped by a political crisis, leaving many affected. While we hope this never occurs here, it does teach us an important lesson about how quickly things can change.

In the UK, there's been a recent spotlight on obesity rates, eating habits and the accessibility of healthy food. As the price of food – not to mention energy – rises, it impacts the less fortunate people in our society the hardest, and fast food often becomes the only affordable option for some. But this issue around fast food is something I find quite contentious – perhaps not for the reason many people think.

Working in the food world, I get preached to a lot, and it's often by people who have the ability to spend more on ethically farmed meat, organic vegetables, pulses and so on. But foods like these aren't going to wash with wider society until this produce becomes more affordable. By serving these products only in higher-end restaurants or at prices that are too high for most people, there'll be less of an impact. Organic and sustainable farming can be very expensive and, at times like these, it's not going to be a priority for many.

When you're talking about sustainability, you can't turn your nose up at fast food. We in the food community can preach seasonality and sustainability as much as we like, but we have to accept that people make lifestyle choices that are different from ours. There are many reasons why we as a society have the eating habits that we do. They haven't been taught overnight and, likewise, they won't be undone quickly. Expecting the public to immediately change their habits is counterintuitive – it'll take years for tastes and behaviors to change. As an industry, we need to target the source through education, and we need to include people from lower-income backgrounds in the discussions.

Working with schools and educating the next generation are a gateway to being able to influence eating habits. This education needs to be delivered alongside accessible choices. That's why I was, for the first time in a long time, gleeful and optimistic after leaving a recent talk led by farming organization Wildfarmed, which offers a route to market for crops grown in systems that prioritize soil health. Co-founder George Lamb also runs his own food school, GROW, which teaches students about soil health and growing vegetables. As well as working to improve food literacy in schools, he wants to improve access to products that aren't only better for you and the planet, but affordably priced. 

The Wildfarmed team always talks about being ‘on the long road to Greggs’ – a British bakery chain with more than 2,000 locations – which they hope to partner with one day. I love that – it's a breath of fresh air. It challenges the bigotry often seen in the food world towards brands like these as being ‘low end’. Greggs has successfully built a national brand, with stores all over the country that make great products, which resonate with British tastes and are accessible to many. And I still love going there – the mini doughnuts are my go-to.

Chefs in Schools is another great company that provides food education via direct learning and works to impact younger generations' food choices. It's a charity that works tirelessly to ‘fuel the future’ by providing nutritious food to kids from low-income backgrounds. 

These organizations are just the beginning of a promising future for our food industry. By providing education and making nutrition a focus for younger people, we can foster real change that'll power the next generation and beyond.

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 49, September/October 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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