Peas in our time

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Luke Mackay attended a Peas Please event at Borough Market—part of a Food Foundation campaign to encourage greater consumption of vegetables—and came away convinced that the nation’s eating habits have to change

A strange thing happened on Monday. I came home and cooked a vegetarian meal for my wife, son and me. There is, it seems, a first time for everything. That morning I had attended the Peas Please event in the Market Hall hosted by Rosie Boycott and Anna Taylor, chief executive of The Food Foundation.

The facts are stark and one, as a father of two very young children, stopped me in my tracks: one in three nurseries in this country are not serving vegetables daily. I find that extraordinary for many reasons but not least because getting children to eat and—crucially—enjoy vegetables at an early stage pretty much negates the need for a campaign such as this, further down the line.  That 17 per cent of all vegetables consumed by children is contained in pizza, baked beans and tomato ketchup, for me rather makes a mockery of the already criminally low consumption statistics and reminds me of the tired old joke about wine being one (or two or three) of your five a day…

No discernible difference
There are more. Did you know that over the last 30 years the space we use for cultivating vegetables has declined by 20 per cent? I’d wager that the same couldn’t be said of golf courses. In the UK alone, research shows that some 20,000 premature deaths could by avoided simply by increasing our national vegetable consumption. I noted with interest that on a graph showing vegetable consumption since 1974, it was apparent that the ‘five a day’ campaign that has been fully absorbed into our collective consciousness has made absolutely no discernible difference to our consumption. In fact, we are almost exactly where we were in 1974.

With my chef’s hat on, it seems obvious to me that eating more vegetables comes down to one thing: we must make them taste nice. Make them interesting and exciting, not just for children but also the big kids in their offices and homes who think ‘veg’ and see the mushy cabbage and soggy carrots of their youth.

Substandard asparagus
We should also try to eat more seasonally if we can. Thirty years ago, 83 per cent of the vegetables consumed in the UK were grown here, last year it was just 58 per cent. Some of this of course comes down to our more exotic tastes, with galangal and pak choi finding their way into our weekly shopping baskets, but much of it is due to, for example, our craving for substandard Peruvian asparagus in January. Eating the seasonal produce of our island not only gives you a better chance of eating something fresh and therefore delicious, it could also reduce our carbon footprint by 17 per cent.

So, things need to change—that vegetable advertising accounts for only 1.2 per cent of all food advertising tells you all you need to know. Why not offer vegetarian options in chicken shops near schools? Why not go vegetarian for a day a week? The arguments for eating more vegetable are so obvious as to be almost comical, and yet we don’t—and it is to the cost of us all.