How come the food industry is so successful in persuading us – and our kids – to buy sweet, sugary, unhealthy food instead of healthy veg? Easy….
- They are tapping in to the fact that our 10,000 year old DNA still believes that when we come across something sweet (ripe fruit in season, honey up a tree) we must eat it as it might be the last chance we get for a long time – while the modern food industry is actually providing us with those sweet treats 24/7.
- They have a LOT of money to spend on persuading us to do so.
- They have grasped the crucial secret about advertising. It does not sell products but, it creates a pleasureable atmosphere in which we are likely to buy them.
Not my conclusions but those of Dan Parker, once a successful food advertising executive and CEO of marketing innovation agency Sponge – until an obesity related diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes dramatically altered his trajectory. Now he is the CEO of the Campaigning Group Veg Power, bringing his 25 years of experience of food industry marketing techniques to those healthy vegetables.
In an interesting interview on Geoff Tansey’s blog a couple of months ago he outlined the dire state of vegetable eating amongst our 5 years olds and what Veg Power is trying to do about it.
Despite the endless ‘healthy eating ‘ messages put out by governments vegetable consumption among young children is poor across all of north and eastern Europe – but Britain is at the bottom of even that league. Our 5 year olds are shorter than their peers and have higher rates of diabetes and other obesity related conditions.
It is true that the money spent on healthy eating messaging is only a tiny fraction of that spent on processed foods (approx 1% actually) but that is not the whole story.
People buy for happiness, not health
Most healthy eating promotions focus on health (boring…) – or are twee – or full of farmers ploughing fields which mean nothing at all the average urban living five year old. Not only do they bore the five years olds, but they make their parents feel guilty for not forcing their kids (and themselves) to eat more healthily.
People buy happiness, not health, and while some adults are able to project that into the future, for small kids, happiness is what is happening right now at this very minute.
So if promoting a higher consumption of veg is to have any chance of success, especially given the financial disadvantage under which it labours, it needs to be imaginative, exciting, cool and, above all, fun.
Partnerships. Veg Power works with celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and gets significant promotion time from ITV and Channel 4.
And – although they do not have the advertising heft, they have a major advantage over the food industry in that their campaigns can get into schools which are banned to advertisers.
The importance of schools in developing a food culture
For the first few years of its life a child’s food tastes are formed entirely by its family. But as soons it goes to primary school that changes as peer and teacher pressure come into the mix.
Crucially, a child’s tastes in food (indeed in many things) are largely formed by the age of 10 – so there is crucial window of opportunity at primary school to engage them with eating vegetables. But to be successful that engagement needs to be exciting and fun. Sufficiently so for the kids not only to get excited themselves but for them to go home and excite their parents about what they have learnt so that increased veg eating can spread from school to home.
So Veg Power focuses on campaigns which can run in schools, such as Eat Them To Defeat Them – now in its 5th successful year. Evaluation data over those five years suggest that over 50% of the parents with children involved in the schools programme have seen sustained increased veg consumption amongst their kids as a result.
But…. the rising cost of living
While 90% of families can afford to cover the increased cost of eating healthy veg, retail data shows that as the cost of living rises there is a significant drop in veg sales in low income families; in the 2008 financial crisis it was 7.5%. With a very limited amount to spend families cannot risk a vegetable being rejected by the children when they know a chocolate biscuit will be eaten.
Veg Power has produced a new campaign, Simply Veg, to help families make their veg go further – but that is not enough.
Policy changes specific to food
While there are many policy changes related to poverty that would help, two specifically related to food would make a significant difference.
- Rolling out the Healthy Start programme to give vouchers to low income families specificially to buy healthy food – and raising the income band to include a wider band of families.
- Universal free school meals. Universal free school meals are now available in Scotland, Wales and in London – these should be available nationwide.