Low income families could be given food stamps to allow them to buy healthy organic food, according to the director of the Soil Association.
Patrick Holden, the director of England’s leading organic organisation, also suggested that the poor could be encouraged to eat better by learning to cook with fresh produce instead of relying on expensive junk foods.
Mr Holden was speaking to the Birmingham Post as the Soil Association held its annual conference at the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham. The two-day event has been discussing ways to counter criticism that organic food is expensive and elitist.
He said the claims were misdirected and stemmed from cultural misconceptions about the value of food. He described the “cheapness of good” as a “peculiar British obsession’’.
He paid tribute to the work of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in challenging the way children were given the cheapest ingredients possible in school dinners and said everyone, regardless of income, should have access to high quality, nutritious food from sustainable farming.
One way of encouraging ethical farming would be to introduce a “polluter pays” tax on nitrogen fertiliser, which is widely used in intensive farming. Mr Holden said taxing farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions would create a level playing field for organic farmers.
But although such a tax would effectively increase the cost of intensively farmed produce – bringing it more in line with organic produce – such a move would not make any difference to the poor, for whom organic fruit and vegetables would still be prohibitively expensive.
Mr Holden said there could be a case for state intervention to help the poorest 20 per cent of society to afford organic foods. The use of family credits was one possibility, although it was unclear how government could ensure the hand-outs were spent on healthy food.
“You cannot rely on the market to deliver things in the public interest,” said Mr Holden. “There are ways you could protect the lowest income bracket against poor nutrition. You could introduce food stamps.”
Mr Holden said it was also an issue that poorer communities tended to rely on ready-made meals, which were expensive and lacked nutritional benefit.
People who ate badly also tended to lack basic cooking skills and this could only be addressed through education, starting with schools. The organic food movement took a battering last year when a report by the Food Standards Agency concluded there was no nutritional difference between organic food and “conventionally” produced food.
Mr Holden said the report was “based on opinion rather than scientific fact” and claimed research emerging from European universities acknowledged there were higher levels of nutrients and minerals in organic food.
He said he had great hopes for the Soil Association’s Food for Life Partnership, which is seeking to improve both the standards of school dinners and food knowledge among pupils.
Led by the association, the partnership brings together to expertise of Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust to boost food standards in schools and the wider communities.
Awards are given to the best performing schools each year. Gold schools have to provide meals of which at least 75 per cent is freshly prepared, 50 per cent is local and 30 is organic.
Two Shropshire schools, St Peter’s Primary School, Wem, and St Andrew’s Primary School, Shifnal, were to be presented with gold awards by Soil Association president Monty Don. Silver awards go to The Oval Primary School, Yardley, Birmingham and Franche Community Primary School, Kidderminster. Oakmeadow Primary and Nursery School, Shrewsbury; Archbishop Ilsley Catholic Technology College, Birmingham; and Orleton Primary School, Orleton, Shropshire, all get bronze.