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Soaring food costs must be a wake up call to invest in a resilient food system

(Alamy)

4 min read

Food security is a global issue, and it is a very immediate concern for many people. The cost of a weekly food basket has risen by 25 per cent in the last year.

Figures from the Food Foundation show that the cost of staple foods, such as porridge oats, white bread, and rice, has increased by about 80 per cent. This should serve as a wake-up call that we need to invest more in a robust food system to ensure that every household has access to nutritious and affordable food.

Food security has many dimensions, including global availability, the resilience of the supply chain, and household spending. Price increases have been driven by a number of interrelated factors, including rising costs for fuel and fertiliser, labour and transport. The ongoing invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated this, pushing up global food inflation, destabilising food security, and putting adequate nutrition out of reach for many.

Good food policy should reduce and rebalance the bombardment of unhealthy food, while ensuring that nutritious food is made more affordable

As food prices have risen, food insecurity rates have doubled in the last year. Regrettably, over 20 per cent of households with children directly experienced food insecurity in January this year and 3.2 million adults reported not eating for a whole day because they couldn’t afford food. However, the impact of this falls most heavily on low-income families. Half of the households on Universal Credit are experiencing food insecurity, spending a higher proportion of their disposable income on food and energy, therefore being disproportionately impacted by price increases in these areas.

With the fear of food shortages from multiple fronts, attitudes to food have changed. Increasingly, purchasing decisions are based on affordability, and choosing the healthy option is more difficult than before. Lack of money means cold food and cold water: 71 per cent of households who have experienced food insecurity in the past month said they had cooked less, eaten food cold, turned off fridges or washed dishes in cold water.

While food prices are a major issue, I have recently noticed that food choices are becoming increasingly limited too. A recent Which? survey revealed that big retailers are failing to stock essential items from their value ranges in convenience stores. In a small Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s Local and Morrisons Daily shops, budget line items were found to be available less than 1 per cent of the time. When two-thirds of consumers on lower incomes rely on small shops for their essential shopping needs – perhaps due to having low mobility or no access to public or private transport to reach a larger supermarket – these people are potentially being forced to buy more expensive foods or go without.

At the same time, we should consider how smaller businesses could have access to extra support to offer healthier foods while remaining financially secure.

Foods that make us ill should not be the cheapest foods on the market, yet people are having to compromise the quality of their diets to cut food costs. The Food Foundation survey shows that among those experiencing food insecurity, 58 per cent said they were buying less fruit, and 48 per cent said they were buying less vegetables. One young person from Bite Back 2030 said, “There’s two chicken shops about a one minute walk from my school that sell two wings and chips for £1. A school dinner is £2.40.”

Healthy food is nearly three times as expensive per calorie. In the midst of cost of living challenges, people are increasingly opting for the cheapest calories, which are typically the least healthy, rather than being driven by whether labels say food is high in calories, sugar and salt. Those are the factors we should probably consider, but we do not because the primary driver is money.

Good food policy should reduce and rebalance the bombardment of unhealthy food, while ensuring that nutritious food is made more affordable, accessible, easy and appealing to those on the lowest incomes. It is vital that we address these issues and support vulnerable households in maintaining a healthy diet despite the rising costs of staple foods.

To tackle this crisis, we must consider a multifaceted approach that includes investing in a resilient food system, supporting smaller businesses in providing healthier options and implementing policies that prioritise nutrition and affordability. By doing so, we can ensure food security and promote better health for all households, especially those facing the most significant challenges due to the rising cost of living.

 

Jo Gideon, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and chair of the APPG on the National Food Strategy

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