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  • Writer's pictureJane Webber Nutrition

Cost of living crisis and impact on UK nutrition

Unless you have been living in a cave for the past 6 months, the noise about the rising cost of living has been at the forefront of many people’s minds.

For years the cost of living has been steady and, many of us have been lucky with low-interest rates on our mortgages and low inflation across the board. But we know that in general many people’s wages have flat-lined over the past 20 years.

So the shock of this level of inflation is new for many people, combined with the impact of the “mini-budget” in October 2022 by Liz Truss. With mortgage rates increasing even though The Bank of England didn’t increase their base rates, we are seeing families who weren’t struggling in the past, now having to make decisions that they thought they would never need to make.

Food budgets are less fixed than other costs, such as rent, mortgages and energy, so this often is the first area to take a hit.

Per calorie, healthier food costs three times more than less than healthy foods, so it stands to reason that more ultra-processed foods are increasing in the average families basket. The cost of 6 apples are more than 12 sticky doughnuts.

According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) food inflation is about 17%, so outpacing general inflation. Yes, the war in Ukraine has impacted both food and energy, however, Brexit (whether you agreed or disagree with being part of Europe) has added £6b to the UK food bills and that is according to the ONS.

The Food Foundation believes the rate of 17% on food inflation has been underestimated as the CPI basket doesn’t reflect what the average family buys from the supermarkets which are less healthy than the CPI basket. Regardless everyone is seeing food prices going up each week.

It’s been a perfect storm. Extreme weather across Europe and the UK has impacted agricultural production. Rising energy prices and increases in the cost of fertilizers have finally impacted the costs of food we see in the shops.

What does that mean for UK diets?

We aren’t long into this cost-of-living crisis, so it is early doors data, but The Food Foundation also looked at historical statistics when this appeared before.

Food insecurity was very high during the first few weeks of the lockdown in 2020, with 7.6% of households being concerned about where, how to get food and the prices. Once we realised that food wasn’t an issue this % dropped back to normal levels. However now 18.6% of households now say they are concerned about food. 1- 4 families with children suffer more from food insecurity, most of which are in receipt of Universal Credit.

What impact does that have on children and families?

They are more likely to need physical and mental medical attention. Children in the most deprived 10% of the population will be 1cm shorter than children in other areas.

49% of lower-income families reported they were buying fewer fresh vegetables and we know that food inflation is higher for fresh vegetables compared to fruit and chocolate!

They are focused on buying food that is value for money, but often that is less nutrient-dense, but more calorie-dense.

Many consumers are trading down, so tinned food is becoming more popular and going to the budget supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl. Yes, some families are trading down by not shopping at M&S or Waitrose, but Tesco or Sainsburys, so may be less impacted, but trading down is across the board.

The outcomes are that 51% of households are buying less food and 1 in 4 adults are eating fewer meat products to save money. More chicken is being purchased, despite the prices going up, but they are adding more plant-based protein to their diets, so a flexitarian approach is proving popular.

What potential solutions do The Food Foundation suggest?

  • Expanding free school meals to all children on Universal Credit, currently, over 800k children are missed.

  • Increase and expand the Healthy Start schemes in the UK.

  • Ensure benefits and the living wage is calculated to factor in the cost of affording a healthy diet. The bottom 20% of the population spends 47% of their disposable income on food, whereas the top 20% of the population only spends 11% of their disposable income on food.

  • Rebalance the cost of healthy food baskets where the fruit is more expensive than ultra-processed foods. An example is 6 apples being more expensive than 12 doughnuts.

Solutions based on the suggestion that we teach people how to cook on a budget isn’t the whole solution as often they don’t live in places where cooking facilities are readily available, such as B&Bs, hotel rooms or shared accommodation. Plus, low-income families are more likely to cook once a day from scratch.

This problem isn’t going to go away any time soon and once we get back to a lower level of inflation, we can’t guarantee the cost of food will return to the low levels of past years. The impact on our nutrition and eating habits will be with us for a long time yet.

Thanks to The Food Foundation for a brilliant webinar in February for this informative session and insights.

I go live most Thursdays in my free Facebook group, so if you fancy listening to more about nutrition and lifestyles, then come and join me.

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