As the cost of living bites, we must make healthy food affordable and accessible for families on low-incomes
In Britain, we are trapped in a junk food cycle that means we now consume more highly processed foods than any other European country, except Malta, and have higher levels of obesity.
As the cost of living continues to squeeze household budgets, low-income families are being forced to choose the cheapest calories, which are typically the least healthy. That is why it is so important that when it comes to tackling food insecurity and the cost of living, the government introduces policies that make nutritious diets affordable, easy and accessible to families on the lowest incomes.
When households need to cut food spending, unhealthier options are the sensible economic option
ONS data shows that High in Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) products are not even in the top five largest price rises amongst food products – the pressure is coming on meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables and household products. That’s where government action is needed.
When households need to cut food spending, unhealthier options are the sensible economic option. This happened in 2008 after the financial crisis and it is happening again. Healthy foods are nearly three times more expensive calorie-for-calorie than less healthy foods.
The current financial pressures are impacting children’s health and life chances, with children in the most deprived parts of England twice as likely to be obese as those in the least deprived areas. We are investing so much in improving standards in our schools, but a hungry child will not have the energy to achieve their full potential.
For many children from families on low-incomes their school meal is the only hot, nutritious meal of the day. It is the vital ingredient to fuel their learning. Free school breakfasts also improve attendance rates. The quality and quantity of school meals matter. Food insecurity affects both mental health and social wellbeing, so is inextricably linked to levels of educational achievement.
The latest government announcement delaying the ban on junk food advertising on television before 9pm, and delaying restrictions on buy-one-get-one-free promotions follow a trend of resisting good food policy because of cries of “nanny statism” and “don’t tell us what to eat”.
Research shows that promotions on unhealthy food and drink actually encourage people to buy 22 per cent more unhealthy food and drink than intended - and consume more of it too. Marketing tactics have a real financial cost as well as a negative health impact. Any delay will mean more children will live with obesity and too many will have reduced life chances through ill-health.
As a self-confessed chocoholic I struggle to resist the temptation to boost my energy levels with a bar of chocolate rather than a piece of fruit, so I know we can all be victims of the irresistible pull of promotions and multiple purchase deals. However, retailers have other choices, instead of encouraging customers on tight budgets to spend more on non-essential foods through these offers, they could simply offer 50 per cent discounts, or as some supermarkets have started to do, ensure that they have a “value range” of products at affordable prices which covers the basic foods for a balanced diet. Lidl is the best supermarket for value for money and has never used multi-buy promotions.
Good food policy should reduce and rebalance the bombardment of unhealthy food, and use any revenue raised in the process to ensure that nutritious food is made more affordable, accessible, easy and appealing to those on the lowest incomes. For example, by expanding the voucher scheme for fruit and vegetables, and recipes for preparing healthy meals with the ingredients provided in a food box, so everyone has access to delicious healthy meals.
Jo Gideon is the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.
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