Poorest priced out of healthy food

A new report has called for urgent change in the UK’s food policies to reverse a growing crisis of affordability and accessibility. Nick Hughes reports.

"This report provides the strongest evidence to date of the worsening crisis affecting our food system and the health of the UK population.” That was the stark warning issued by Food Foundation chief executive Anna Taylor on the release of the charity’s Broken Plate report in July.

The report, the fourth of its type to be published, assesses the state of our food system and the food environment across 10 key metrics. It tells a grim story of healthy and sustainable foods being unaffordable and inaccessible for large swathes of the population with many metrics showing the situation getting worse not better.

Here are some of the key reasons why many stakeholders, including the Food Foundation, believe our food system is in need of an urgent fix, and what the solutions might be.

A healthy and sustainable diet is out of reach for many people: The report shows that the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 47% of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the government’s recommended healthy diet, the Eatwell Guide. This compares to just 11% for the richest fifth. This crisis in food affordability is being exacerbated by significant price inflation driven by factors including labour shortages and increased input costs – especially fuel and fertiliser. The problem is further compounded for workers in the food sector because their wages are disproportionately lower than across the wider economy: 22% of workers in the food system earn the national minimum wage or below, compared with 8% of workers across the whole UK economy. Among food sector workers, kitchen, catering and waiting staff are most likely to be on or below the minimum wage.

Healthy, sustainable foods command a price premium: Healthy foods are nearly three times as expensive per calorie as less healthy foods, according to the report’s analysis. The average cost of more healthy foods (as defined by the government’s nutrient profiling model) per 1,000kcal is £8.51 with fruit and vegetables the most expensive, compared with £3.25 for less heathy foods. To make matters worse, from 2021 to 2022 healthier foods have been subject to greater price increases than less healthy foods (5.1% vs 2.5%). Foods generally considered to be better for the planet are also subject to a price premium: plant-based milks for example are priced at up to £1.79 per litre for oat milk compared with £1.00 a litre for dairy milk.

‘Junk’ foods are increasingly accessible: Fast-food outlets are becoming more-and-more pervasive in local communities. The percentage of all food outlets that are classified as selling fast-food rose from 25.4% in 2019 to 26.2% in 2021 with almost one in five local authorities having seen an increase of over 5% in the proportion fast-food outlets to total outlets. The highest proportion of fast-food outlets are located in the most deprived areas where people are least likely to be able to afford healthy options. In the least deprived fifth of local authorities 22% of places to buy food are defined as fast-food outlets compared with 31% in the most deprived fifth of local authorities.

Advertising bucks go on processed foods: Almost a third (32%) of food and soft drink advertising spend goes towards less healthy products such as soft drinks, confectionery and snacks while just 1% is spent promoting fruit and vegetables. In 2007, the government limited advertising of unhealthy food on children’s TV channels and during children’s TV programmes. Since then, it has passed legislation to enable the implementation of a 9pm watershed for advertising of HFSS (high in fat, sugar and salt) products on broadcast TV and a total online ban for junk food ads; however both policies are now subject to a 12-month delay.

The situation is bad but it could get worse. The Food Foundation’s analysis suggests that if the status quo is maintained, by the time children born this year are in their first year of school, one in four will be overweight or obese. By the time they reach the age of 65, three quarters will suffer with overweight and obesity, one in three will have diabetes, and one in five will have cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, on our current trajectory, 2050 emissions from the food system will be four times higher than the level that is needed if the UK is to meet its net-zero target.

So what’s to be done? The report says the crisis is solvable but only if political and business leaders take the issues seriously, understand the scale of the problem, and recognise the critical role they must play in finding solutions and implementing change.

Several examples are proposed by the Food Foundation. Among these are for the balance of prices to shift so that healthy, sustainable foods are the most affordable and within everyone’s means. All workers in the food system should be paid a wage that allows them to meet their everyday needs and incomes need to be set at a level that accounts for the cost of healthy, sustainable food. Local authority planning powers should be used to prevent further proliferation of unhealthy food outlets, while action is needed to address the imbalance of advertising spending between more and less healthy foods.

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