The health debate rages on. But amid the constant exhortations to eat our greens the influence of one important retail sector seems to have been ignored. Siân Harrington reports

In the war of words over the nation’s diet and its effects on health, food manufacturers have been battling against consumer groups, health professionals have poured scorn on the whole industry and the major retailers have done all they can to persuade government that they are taking the issue seriously.

However, one important sector appears to have been overlooked: the independent sector. Yet its retailers could be the most influential in helping consumers most at risk to turn to a healthier diet.

Earlier this year the then health minister Hazel Blears acknowledged that access to shops where fresh fruit and vegetables were sold was vital in the war against killers such as coronary heart disease and cancer. But she also drew attention to prices in independent outlets, saying: “Prices in corner shops are 2.5 times those in supermarkets. So the disincentive to a healthy diet is huge if you don’t have transport to get to a supermarket.”

The implication is that local independents are failing to offer a possible solution to some of the nation’s health problems while the multiples, thanks to their pricing advantage, play an important role in this area.

But this argument is coming at the issue from the wrong side. If the independent retailer is at the heart of the community, then more needs to be done to help him help the community he serves. The poorest in society have the poorest diets and suffer the most health problems as a result. According to the
National Diet & Nutrition Survey, households receiving benefits were less likely to consume fruit and vegetables than households that weren’t on benefits. Nearly three quarters of men and 58% of women in benefit households consumed table sugar compared to 58% of men and 46% of women in non-benefit households. Women in benefit households were also more likely to consume whole milk, burgers and kebabs and meat pies and pastries [NDNS adults aged 19 to 64, volume 1 2002].

Sally Marsden of consumer research company Leapfrog says a number of issues affect low income households. “There is a price to pay for ‘healthier’ foods and a price premium on organic and free-range products,” she says. “From speaking to low affluence households we often find that the main food provider uses expressions like ‘I can’t afford to worry about healthy eating’ or ‘it’s all food and it all ends up the same’. So the foodie culture has made less of an impact on low affluence households. There is also lack of food education and a genuine need for food as fuel because of the tendency to be in manual jobs.”

Individuals on low incomes often have a restricted choice and are more reliant on independent corner shops. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, says: “There is a hot debate on food deserts but big supermarkets tend to locate where there are more affluent consumers. Generally poorer areas have a worse range of food and are worse served. The main problem is that small shopkeepers make a huge proportion of their money on snacks and soft drinks.”

According to Helen Johnson, parliamentary officer for the National Obesity Forum, meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity are attended by healthcare professionals, commercial companies such as major food retailers and manufacturers, patient and consumer groups, academics, pharmaceutical companies and other interested parties. However, she concedes: “We don’t have smaller retailers. We need to ensure there is a coherent and comprehensive healthy eating and anti-obesity strategy. This means working with groups that can make a difference, like the independent retailer.”

She continues: “There also needs to be more of a push towards making fresh fruit and vegetables more attractive for retailers. Higher processed food tends to give higher margins.”

Making fruit and veg a more attractive proposition for smaller retailers to stock is easier said than done.

But there have been a number of suggestions as to how to go about it. Addressing the House of Commons in January, Howard Stoate MP, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary obesity group, said: “…we suggest tax breaks for shops in food-poor areas to encourage the setting-up of shops in rural or inner-city areas where it is more difficult to make ends meet. We believe that such changes could make a significant improvement to the health of the nation”.

Eoin McGettigan, executive chairman of Musgrave UK, believes the government needs to step in to ensure independents have a level playing field when it comes to price. “What is the government going to do to help ensure that the 56,000 independent stores around the country are not disadvantaged on price?” he asks. “This disadvantage, as Hazel Blears pointed out, hinders these stores’ ability to service their communities with the products so necessary to a balanced lifestyle. I remain convinced that if regulations were put in place to ensure equity in pricing that competition would be freed up and consumers needs would be better met.”

Johnson agrees that government needs to do more to encourage independents to take part in the health debate. “It needs to get its act together and help these people. There needs to be an incentive for the smaller retailer who does not have marketing and promotional budgets,” she says.

James Lowman, public affairs and communications manager of the Association of Convenience Stores, agrees. “Clearly both the government and industry have a role to play,” he says.

It is important to look at the results of initiatives to increase the frequency of deliveries, such as those run by Budgens and Nisa,he points out. “It is difficult to run a strong fruit and veg offer on a weekly delivery.”

Then there is wastage. “C-store operators have a wastage paranoia,” says Lowman. “This puts them off investing in the category.”

This is an area where government could help. It takes time to build a reputation for quality fruit and veg and during this time a retailer needs to maintain a reasonable range and good availability, and high wastage is a risk. “The multiples that invested in fresh had to bear losses at the beginning,” says Lowman. “Government can help independents by introducing a system, like kitemarking, to reward those stores where quality and range is good, so that public perception is changed more rapidly, as well as possibly providing incentives.”

The irony is that fresh is a category offering great opportunity for independent retailers. As multiples get bigger and shoppers visit less frequently, fresh food will need to be replenished in local top-up shops.

In Speke in Merseyside, the second most deprived area in the country, doctors have begun offering apples, oranges and bananas to patients at 10p because the nearest shop that sells fruit is half a mile away and 60% of households in the area don’t have a car.

The target of 100 pieces a week has been met and the practice now hopes to sell 200.

So the opportunity for independents is there, but where are the incentives?