Healthy Food for All.

I welcome Ms Sineád Keenan and Ms Marjo Moonan to the meeting. They represent Healthy Food for All. Before we begin, I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have privilege, the same privilege does not extend to witnesses. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. That is a safety warning we must give to all Members. Members have been provided with Ms Logan's presentation. I would appreciate if she could provide a brief synopsis. I am afraid we are under significant time pressure and there may be a vote in the House in due course. We will try to complete our business as expeditiously and as effectively as possible.

Ms Marjo Moonan

I thank the committee for inviting us. We welcome the opportunity to present the work of Healthy Food for All. I chair the initiative and Ms Sineád Keenan is the product co-ordinator. She will introduce our organisation and the work we do and, in particular, flag issues in respect of the cost of healthy eating.

Ms Sineád Keenan

Healthy Food for All is an all-island multi-agency initiative which seeks to ensure that everyone on the island of Ireland has enough of the right foods necessary for good health. We work on three interconnected levels, namely, the community, networking and policy.

I refer to the link between food poverty and health inequality. Healthy eating is a determinant of good health and helps to prevent heart disease, stroke, cancer and obesity. However, as we are all aware there is a social gradient in health and the lower a person's social position, the worse his or her health is likely to be. Given that people from lower socio-economic groups have greater difficulties accessing a good diet, healthy eating messages must be targeted specifically at these groups. There is little point in giving people healthy eating advice if they do not have the resources to implement this advice in the first place.

Research has shown that low income households spend a very high proportion of their weekly budget on food but still have a poorer diet in terms of the nutritional intake. We made available a public policy briefing on the affordability of healthy eating in October last year. It was based on research undertaken by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland into the cost of a healthy diet. Since October, we have updated the figures in the policy briefing to take into account changes in welfare rates and the decrease in food prices, which was 6.4% from the period April 2009 to January 2010.

The main findings of this research show that the most costly items in a weekly budget are fruit and vegetables, which represent more than one third of total food costs, followed by lean meat and fish. It is twice as expensive to purchase a healthy diet in a local convenience store compared to a multiple supermarket. It is up to ten times cheaper to provide calories in the form of unhealthy foods high in fat, salt and sugar than in the form of protective foods such as fruit and vegetables and other important foods such as lean mean and fish. One specific finding of interest was that for a male teenager the cost of a diet bought in a multiple supermarket is more than half the weekly child income support. This cost rises to more than 100% of the combined child income support for one week.

Access to food is a real difficulty for low income groups. They often face limited retail options, have no transport and have poor storage and cooking facilities. Often, as a result, they must shop in local convenience stores where prices are higher and where there is less variety in the type of food available.

This has been specifically illustrated by a case study of a disadvantaged area in north County Dublin which is served by one small shopping centre in an area where 25% of households have no car, where public transport is limited and a trip to the nearest major retailer includes a 20 minutes journey on two separate buses. Healthy Food for All works to support community food initiatives which we maintain are a practical way of addressing the barriers to healthy food. We are working in partnership with Safefood, the food safety promotion board, to run a demonstration programme for community food initiatives. We were awarded additional funding by Safefood in 2008 to set up this programme. It was launched in January and it funds seven community food initiatives in Derry, Belfast, Dundalk, Limerick city, Knocknaheeny, Cork and Killarney, County Kerry.

As part of this programme there is a large emphasis on shared learning and the identification of the resources and supports necessary for the development of food initiatives on a sustainable basis. The funding from Safefood covers a three year programme of funding for seven projects up to a maximum of €75,000 per project. It also funds a development worker who provides supports to projects and co-ordinates the programme. There are element of networking and the promotion of shared learning as well.

I refer to school food initiatives. We are also supportive of the provision of healthy food in schools, especially those in low income areas. We published a good practice guide for school food in June last year and this has been sent to all DEIS schools. It is also available for download on our website. We are working with key partners to identify best practice and how best to improve the quality of food provision in schools.

We are also developing a second good practice guide on community food initiatives, due for publication in the coming months. The two guides are designed as practical toolkits to assist groups on the ground to set up, manage and maintain a sustainable food initiative which addresses local food needs. We are also developing an on-line directory of community food initiatives which will, it is hoped, act as a support to community food initiatives and will raise awareness about the good work which is taking place on the ground.

The research and policy briefing highlighted the fact that healthy eating is a challenge for people on low incomes. There are also many positive initiatives taking place on the ground, but they need to be supported by a national co-ordinated Government policy which works across all Departments.

I thank Ms Keenan. Does Dr. Flynn want to add anything?

Dr. Mary Flynn

No. I will answer questions.

With regard to the good practice guide for schools, what evidence does the delegation have regarding its application? What age groups are involved? Young people, schools and getting people to understand correct dieting at a young age have emerged as important issues from several of the groups. Good practice for schools is one thing. I have an interest in another area. Guides are sent to schools which never see the light of day because there is a concentration on points and success in a different way. It is very difficult for teachers to get time to devote to such activity. What evidence does the delegation have on the application of its advice?

I ask the delegation to tell us more about the organisation. It circulated some information to the committee. It is an all-Ireland organisation. When was it established? What is its status regarding the State? Is it fully supported by the State? I never heard of the organisation although I had heard of many of the other groups. It is new to us.

I apologise for missing the presentation but I have a number of things to do today. I read the delegation's current document and a previous document. The delegation will know from my questions to the previous delegations that I am interested in starting from the womb in terms of bringing children up in a healthy way. The delegation, as did a previous delegation, highlighted the cost of healthy food and the difficulties for families who may live in isolated places and may not have a car to go cheaper supermarkets or a back garden to grow vegetables. The delegation raised the issue of cost. I do not know if it has specific recommendations on what can be done.

One interesting recommendation was the idea of food co-operatives and alternative ways for people to get their food in a collective community-type way. I lived in Vancouver some 30 years ago and was a member of a food co-operative. We met once a week and received large amounts of cheese, eggs, grains and other things, and divided them out for the different households in the food co-operative. It was all done on a voluntary basis but it was a way of providing food which was relatively cheap in comparison to going to shops. I wish to ask the delegation about that suggestion because I do not know of any food co-operatives in Ireland. It may be something we should try.

How does the delegation ensure those on lower incomes have access to the healthy foods they need? I would like the delegation to elaborate on its recommendations. I do not have difficulty with most of them. However, if people on lower incomes are to make proper choices, they need to be aware of what healthy foods are. That is a problem for everybody in society. We discussed food labelling in supermarkets and shops earlier. If one were to increase the income of people on lower incomes, there is no guarantee that they would spend the money on healthy food or, more important, that they would know the health foods on which they should be spending their money.

I asked the Food Safety Authority of Ireland representatives if any country has successfully turned around people's attitude towards good diet and weight management.

I congratulate the work the delegation is doing. The points it raised are vitally important for the development of Irish society. Having grown up in a rural area, I remember many mothers cycling home on their bicycles in the wet and cold laden down with bags of food. Have we lost our hunter-gatherer instincts to some extent? The distances in this country are not enormous. I take the point that we will not have discount stores in every community, but if people had the understanding and motivation to go and seek out value, it can be found. The cost of food in this country has decreased, something of which we are all very conscious. As a society, we must ensure those who have the greatest needs can access that. Can the delegation explore those ideas? I invite the witnesses to answer the questions raised.

Ms Sineád Keenan

I shall start with who we are and how we were set up. Combat Poverty, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Cross Care published a report in 2004 on food poverty and policy. One of its recommendations was that a food poverty network would be established to work on ground level to support community food initiatives and address policy issues. We carried out a feasibility study and received funding on foot of that in 2006 for an 18 month development phase. Since then we have created a three-year development plan and are currently in the final phase for 2008-10. We are funded by the HSE, the social inclusion division in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Food Safety Promotion Board, which has given us additional funding for a separate community demonstration programme which was launched in January 2010.

I mentioned we operate on a community level through good practice guides and the on-line directory. We are also setting up a network, which will be on-line and will also involve working on the ground through networking events to provide alternative routes to access food. On a policy level, we have submitted policy briefings and submissions to various groups. We have a project co-ordinator, a development worker, a management committee and an advisory committee. There is a list of supporting agencies which sit on those boards at the back of the information leaflet circulated to the members.

Ms Marjo Moonan

I will try to address some of the questions. Regarding Deputy Neville's question on the application of the school guides, they were distributed in the second half of 2009 but we are not sure they are being used. We are conscious that more concerted action is needed to get already busy teachers and principals to use the guide. We will soon be recruiting a part-time liaison officer for schools who will be able to assist them putting in place healthy eating policies and projects. Just sending a good practice guide is not sufficient.

There are food co-operatives in Dublin and Limerick.

Ms Sineád Keenan

The South Hill food co-op has a specific low-income focus. It is run by the Limerick food partnership which is one of the initiatives of the safe food-healthy food for all demonstration programme. It has been up and running for four years and situated in the area. It provides a great social setting and is staffed by workers from a community employment scheme. The Limerick food partnership supplies food to 17 schools in Limerick city, of which the South Hill co-op supplies some.

Dr. Mary Flynn

I am fortunate to have worked on obesity in several different countries. The country that most impresses me in tackling the problem is Canada. For many years, it has had clear guidelines on active living. The term used there is "active living" rather than "exercise" because it really is all about how one integrates activity into one's life. The Canadian authorities have determined active living is different for older people compared with adults, teenagers compared with children. Research showed that to have a young child between the ages of five and 12 active, one just has to put him or her outside. However, that does not work for teenagers.

They have also examined developing dietary guidelines. When such guidelines across the world were first established they did not consider calorie intakes but focused on eating the right portions such as enough cereals to get fibre. When obesity levels rose exponentially, however, in the past ten years, the American and Canadian authorities decided to put calories back into healthy eating guidelines and work out the average amount of exercise for various categories of people. The guidelines would outline how much bread, cereals and potatoes, for example, should be consumed. Ireland needs to follow this example. Some work has been done on the matter by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland but it needs to be continued.

Canada centrally collects all data from measuring adults and children with information continuously coming in from vaccination clinics for children, for example. This, in turn, allows them to identity geographical areas in which obesity has risen exponentially. When they do a mapping study of such areas, they often find they have no playgrounds or the right shops, concrete jungles in effect. This allows them to get community development workers to tackle the problem in these areas.

They have focused on parenting programmes. Parents can be isolated these days as they do not live with extended family supports. A busy parent trying to manage a nine year old may be limited to a couple of hours with the child every day. Accordingly, they are examining if nutrition policy should be mandatory in schools and whether those caring for children should meet certain standards in meal provision.

The Canadians have focused on infant feeding. Ireland spends much money on measuring children at the critical stage of infancy. It would be good if we could piggyback that into an integrated obesity prevention programme. Worldwide research shows infancy and up to entering school is the most critical time for preventing childhood and adulthood obesity.

Canada links right across the spectrum of age and health, from the cradle to the grave. Services are linked from the most compromised little newborn baby to the healthiest.

Is there an umbrella organisation responsible for these programmes from which we can access information?

Dr. Mary Flynn

Health Canada. I often think they are lucky with such a lovely name while here it is the Department of Health and Children.

I thank the group for its presentation. If there are any other matters it wishes to raise, it can do so by corresponding with the committee. The committee appreciates the work the group is doing.

Sitting suspended at 5.08 p.m. and resumed at 5.09 p.m.