An Inconvenient Sandwich

New research shows appetite for quick, cheap, convenient food has hidden costs to society, health and environment

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The full report, published by The New Economics Foundation, can be found here

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We spend £10billion a year on cheap, fast food here in the UK yet we rarely factor in the additional social and environmental costs according to a new report.

The Throwaway Economics of Takeaway Food, written by Rosalind Sharpe, highlights the British appetite for quick, cheap, convenient food that we can eat wherever we happen to be has hidden costs to society, public health and the environment.

The purpose of the report is to draw attention to a neglected area of the food system and raise awareness of the issues involved by investigating the economic pressures facing independent cafés and sandwich bars which often forces social justice, sustainability and health off the menu.

During the course of research, Sharpe examined how our habit of casual eating squares with our ideal of a more sustainable food system with a focus was small, independent cafés and takeaways that line ours and other local High Streets. On the face of it they represent a more sustainable way of providing casual food than the chains, in that they are local and small-scale; they can be focal points in neighbourhoods; they may employ local people and use local suppliers thereby keeping money in the local economy, and can provide a more personal service.

A number of café and takeaway operators were asked about their businesses, their concerns, and how they felt about various measures that have been suggested to make the catering sector more sustainable.

  • The interviewees did not feel that the food they supplied was unhealthy – the word they most often used to describe it was ‘fresh’. However, this often meant freshly prepared from frozen ingredients. They made some use of local suppliers, but also used national wholesalers for a range of menu items, from sandwich fillings and sauces to frozen items including chips, meat dishes, and desserts.
  • Apart from supplies for a specifically organic café, none of the food came from certified systems recognised to provide food more sustainably (such as fair trade, organic, or high animal welfare). The interviewees said their customers never asked for these, and that they were inappropriate to the type of business and too expensive.
  • The interviewees felt caught between, on one side, customers’ expectations that certain items would always be on the menu and their expectation that prices would be low, and, on the other side, the restriction of having to choose from what was in the wholesalers’ catalogues. Consequently, they felt they had little control over the food they sold.
  • Their main concerns were immediate, commercial ones. Given the scale of their operations, they felt powerless to do anything about the wider issues facing the food system, including efforts to promote sustainability. They were unwilling to pay extra to have recyclable waste collected, and did not make use of government schemes to advise businesses on sustainability. They worked long and often unsocial hours for what they recognised were relatively low wages, but many felt a strong sense of commitment to their staff.
  • They were not unreceptive to the idea that their practices could be made more sustainable. They felt, however, that they would need advice and support, and probably the force of regulation, in order to do so.
  • Overwhelmingly, cost and customers’ willingness to pay were the main factors determining how willing or able they would be to implement the kind of changes that would enable casual eating to become more sustainable.

The full report, published by The New Economics Foundation, can be found here.

February 3, 2011