Prices and a busy lifestyle present barriers to healthy eating, according to the respondents in a study which is recommending a VAT revision for restaurants and additional farmers markets in strategic localities.

An overwhelming majority of participants in the research, the findings of which are expected to be released on Thursday, said that healthy, clean and fair (HCF) food in Malta was more expensive than non-HCF food.

Together with “unrealistic” price expectations and a tendency for producers to have slim profit margins, prices emerged as one of the strongest barriers to healthy food access. Those with a higher income were perceived to be able to afford ‘better’ options, according to the report.

Jointly conducted by the National Observatory for Living with Dignity and the National Centre for Family Research, the qualitative research included 30 interviews with stakeholders in the food sector, ethnographic market observations and focus groups with farmers and consumers, among others.

The study, Access to Healthy, Clean, and Fair Food: An Exploratory Study of the Maltese Scenario, follows recent data that 60 per cent of adults in Malta are either pre-obese or obese, the highest rate in the EU. While incentives for people to adopt a healthier lifestyle are encouraged, it should also be acknowledged that opportunities for making healthy food choices are not equally available, the report notes.

It should also be acknowledged opportunities for making healthy choices are not equally available

Asked whether good-quality, healthy and clean food could also be fair, meaning it comes at a price accessible to low-income consumers without compromising on fair conditions and decent pay for producers, Vince Caruana, from the observatory, which like the National Centre for Family Research forms part of the President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society, said that no definite yes or no answer had come out of the research. Instead, the study aimed at starting to explore the question.

However, its recommendations indicated there was much more that needed to be done to guarantee such food for all, he added.

Apart from prices, it also seems that, for many consumers, time was a barrier to informed food choices and to building a relationship with producers. This disconnection from consumers, including the lack of acknowledgment of labour efforts, is a sore point with growers.

Recommendations

■ Setting up additional farmers markets in more strategic localities could help increase exposure to local HCF foods and facilitate consumption of these foods with a mutual benefit to consumers and growers.

■ Provide stronger measures and support systems to aid small-scale farmers and grassroot initiatives, since there is a lack of outreach and incentives to help support small Maltese farmers, who cannot access EU funds and could be aided by subsidies and measures established by the national government.

■ The 18 per cent VAT rate – which is blamed for hindering restaurants and food provisioning industries from providing more HCF food at accessible prices – should be reassessed.

■ The compulsory home economics school curriculum could be extended to older teens and youth to sync teaching with time-strapped lifestyles.

■ Increase efforts to highlight the added value of consuming a Mediterranean diet. Consumers may pay more attention to the diet’s benefits for the environment, safeguarding indigenous foods, local farmers and retaining traditional recipes than just its benefits for health.

■ Investigate how local media report on local food production and agricultural issues in order to highlight the strengths and deficiencies, especially with regard to the image presented of local food and food producers.