Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A blether with Scotland’s fast food vendors

Guest post by Michelle Estrade, Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy (SCPHRP)

In June 2014 the Scottish Government published a voluntary framework, entitled Supporting Healthy Choices, which encourages the food industry to take action towards offering healthier food choices to consumers. The recommendations include guidance on promotional activities, healthier cooking practices, and types and portion sizes of foods offered. Just after the recommendations were drafted, I sat down with owners of independent fast food shops in lower-income neighbourhoods across Scotland to discuss how they felt about offering healthier menu options. They shared many thoughts on tradition, customer demand, and the deprived neighbourhood context, suggesting that food vendors in disadvantaged areas would need additional incentives and assistance in order to implement healthy menu guidelines and ensure that their customers don’t miss out on the potential benefits.

The shop owners I talked to took pride in their menus, using words like “traditional” and “proper” to describe the foods they sold. Because they felt food was being prepared the proper way, there was a sense of reluctance to change cooking methods. One example was the use of traditional beef dripping for frying, rather than healthier oil alternatives. During our conversation, the food vendor I was interviewing looked at me quizzically and asked: “I mean, how can we say we’re traditional if we’re cooking in palm oil or rapeseed oil?”

Most places I visited had a well-developed sense of niche, which was a common reason for offering only certain types of foods and not others. When I asked about the possibility of adding other [healthier] options, a fish and chip shop manager gave me a cheeky smile and quipped: “…they’re not coming here because they want fruit.” Again and again, the food vendors I talked to explained that they needed to respond to customer demand in order to keep their clients; competition was described as “cut-throat”, and the fear of losing business was palpable.

Indeed, price was viewed as a major barrier to offering healthier options to current clientele. The owner of a sandwich shop shared a personal example of the dilemma: “I don’t allow my kids to have fizzy juice, so I dinnae really like having it. I’d like to buy fresh juice, but it’s so expensive, you wouldn’t make any money. With the price you would have to charge, they wouldnae want to buy it.” Another told me: “We’re barely making a profit just now. If we were anywhere else we’d be able to charge more, but in [this neighbourhood], most of our customers are on a limited budget...”

I went into this project assuming that the major problem I would uncover would be a lack of awareness and knowledge about healthy eating. All we would need to do is help food vendors realise how important it is to get people to make healthier food choices, and they would be eager to jump on board with guidelines like Supporting Healthy Choices. What I found though was a much more complex set of circumstances at play – a constant struggle to cope with economic pressures, intertwined with the enduring characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which these people did business. Reflection on this has helped me realise that perhaps what needed uncovering was my own lack of awareness about the pivotal role of environment and context. Too often, I think, researchers are eager to jump into intervention mode and change what is happening without first thoroughly understanding why it’s happening.

Michelle is presenting at the Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting - More than enough on our plates: tackling the takeaway food diet at source tomorrow (Thursday 30 April).

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