The politics and practice of healthy eating on a budget (updated for food costs as at December 2014)
We are heading for a perfect storm. The triple whammy of rising living costs, shrinking incomes and public spending cuts herald a new era of what is now labelled a “nutritional recession” by The Guardian in their current Breadline Britain series.[i] The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that low-income households spend just £16.49 per person each week on foods buying frozen products and highly fatty, processed foods at the expense of fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.[ii] [iii]
Although in the midst of an “epidemic of nutritional poverty”[iv] we are being warned to live healthier lives or contribute to the costs of our healthcare.[v] By the time baby boomers reach their 70’s in 2020, the NHS budget will no longer be able to afford free medicine. The message is clear: if we want to avoid a physical and mental health crisis as pensioners, we have to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle.
The question, then, is how to eat a healthy diet on a restricted budget? In the media, much is made of ‘food poverty’ and the issue often trivialised, for instance with demonstrations of how families are forced to swap branded for unbranded crisps – shock horror! There is much hand-wringing and quoting of statistics in the press, presumably to reinforce the notion that nothing can be done, that we are helpless in the face of the fallout from current economic affairs. Another popular opinion frequently expressed in online commentaries is that an unhealthy diet is caused by ignorance and laziness, rather than poverty. These views focus entirely on the consumer as either hapless victim, or lacking in education and self-discipline.
It is possible to look at this in a different way. Rather than asking what we can do about nutritional poverty, we should be asking what we can do about the choices we make when hard up. If struggling to make ends meet, one generally has a poverty of choices. It is not just a poverty of nutrition, except perhaps in the genuinely deprived “food desert” areas.[vi]
The term “food poverty” seems but a convenient label with which politicians beat each other about the head. One might as well talk about “Sky subscription poverty” if one can no longer afford Sky TV. Or “sailing boat poverty” if one can’t afford a sailing boat. Adding adjectives and qualifiers to compartmentalise the problem misstates the true underlying issues, subtly shifts responsibility for them and twists our thinking. What we are really talking about here, is simply poverty. If I don’t have enough money, I need to make a choice: should I keep my Sky subscription or should I spend more on decent food?
Choice is a meaningless concept unless it is an ‘informed choice’, and this is where it gets complicated. You can make an informed choice about your Sky subscription, but you cannot easily make an informed choice about food. A Sky subscription is simple to budget for – it is a fixed amount that rarely changes. The deal is less clear with food as prices are never constant and can change dramatically without regard to supply costs, promotions obscuring the real costs and pricing trends. Baked beans in my local supermarket, for instance, have seen prices double, then (almost) halve, within the space of a few weeks, with the price of many staple ingredients equally volatile.
Up to a few decades ago everyone knew, roughly, the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread or the cost of a pound of potatoes. Whether a particular food price represented good or bad value was an essentially simple task. Now it is difficult to work out how much an item per unit, per kg, per each, per pack actually costs. The price of food is a moving target, value has become impossible to judge and shopping has become an intellectual challenge unless you have a calculator, a photographic memory and endless time to read the small print under each item on the shelving.
Do you know how much a pound of good stewing steak costs? This question makes no sense today, but it used to. Now it depends entirely upon which supermarket you visit and on what day of the week you go. It might even depend on the time of day you get there. It is almost impossible to make an informed choice inside a supermarket in any case as they are quite deliberately designed to bias our choices (music, smell, labelling, displays and product positioning)
If people are to choose healthier food, then their choices must be clear in terms of quality and price. Supermarkets do not make this easy although they themselves buy entire harvests well in advance and dictate their price terms. Marketing departments get involved and prices fluctuate according to planned promotions. Really smart retailers try to prevent shoppers from getting an idea about the underlying value and price trends of food. Is this item expensive or not? A simple solution to this dilemma might be to mark every item with a cost per weight. However, that will not solve the problem of retailers introducing deliberate fluctuations in food prices to confuse us, so we have no real understanding of the fair cost and are therefore unable to budget and plan easily from one week to the next.
During the course of my work as a nutritional therapist I encounter many people, health and social care professionals in particular, who tell me it is not possible to eat a healthy diet on a low income. Fed up arguing with them, I decided to have a go at testing out their theory by devising a menu plan with healthy recipes for a week (7 days) with food bought primarily from ASDA – simply because it is the closest supermarket to me. The results are interesting, confirming that it is indeed possible to eat healthily on a very limited budget.
I discovered that, once stocked up with a few essentials, a week’s healthy eating for a single person costs less than £20.00 – and within shouting distance of the £16.49 per person quoted by Defra. Please note: the costs provided are a snapshot of one particular supermarket on one particular day in December 2012 and then updated again in December 2014. No doubt some of the ingredients can be exchanged for cheaper items, for example if you live near a food or farmer’s market. My recipes are pretty basic and I make no claims they are suitable for everyone or indeed are everyone’s favourite dishes, but they can easily be adapted, for instance, to gluten- or dairy-free diets. Vegetarian main meals options are not included, and are likely to work out cheaper. The meals are designed to be economical and to support individual health rather than the health of the balance sheets of junk food manufacturers.
The only caveat – and a crucial one – is that you need to be able to plan your shop and make time to cook the meals! I would be interested to hear how others think my menu ideas can be improved. I have incorporated leftovers as much as possible to keep costs down and reduce food waste.
Talking about food poverty shifts the blame on to the politicians, the economy and the squeezed consumer, away from major food retailers whose influence on our eating habits and spending decisions are undeniable. If, on the other hand, we start talking about poverty and discuss the genuine choices we can make about our food and how it influences our health, then the profits of Big Food might be affected. The real question we should be asking is not what we can do about food poverty, but what sensible and informed choices we can make about food when money is tight.
In 2015, let us focus on the language we use.
You can download Martina’s free e-book ‘Healthy Eating On A Budget’ here:
[i] Amelia Hill, Families struggle to eat healthily amid rising food bills and shrinking budgets. As more people are unable to afford food, experts are warning that Britain’s nutritional recession is going to get worse. The Guardian. 18.11.12
[ii] Food Statistics Pocketbook 2012, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, page 28
[iv] Patrick Butler, Britain in nutrition recession as food prices rise and incomes shrink, The Guardian 18.11.12
[vi] Guy, CM, Clarke G, Eyre H (2004). Food retail change and the growth of food deserts:a case study of Cardiff. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management. 32(2): 72-88