As we write this article, the cost-of-living crisis unravels further still. Families across the UK, regardless of socioeconomic status have been hit with a raft of new costs, due in part, to Brexit, the war in Ukraine, downturn after coronavirus and other budgeting proposals by the Johnson government. Although many articles have highlighted the effect of fuel and energy prices, the fundamental basis of this crisis is the effect of soaring food prices across all sectors. Preliminary estimations by food tsar Ronald Kers are that all types of produce and food will increase at least 15%, leaving families to foot the bill. In the wake of a public health disaster, the public has a renewed concern over living healthily and eating well. Yet, we are posed with a question; how do families balance economic concerns and healthy lifestyles which, mostly, cost more to enact?
Top UK flour producer GR Wright, speaking to the BBC, warned rather precipitously, “prices are absolutely certain to rise due to the conflict (sic, in Ukraine). Russia and Ukraine are some of the world's biggest suppliers of wheat and exports are expected to be affected by the war”. With wheat being the basis for so many foodstuffs, this is certain to escalate the price of raw food materials, further increasing the burden on consumers. Whilst some farmers in the UK are optimistic about the prospect of increased farming in the UK of crops in a deficit, the availability of this agricultural support is currently low – with the UK importing the bulk of its agricultural materials. Writing in the NationalWorld.com, Henry Sandercock notes, “The Consumer Price Index, which is the official mechanism used to measure inflation in the UK, showed the cost of food and drink has gone up 5.9% year-on-year as of March 2022”. One of the areas most hit is the cost of meat and dairy. Staples like milk, cheese and eggs have increased nearly 10%, with precious meats like lamb increasing over 15%. These rises are associated with the cost of the raw material and farmers having to obtain more profit to satisfy the material costs. These again can be linked to the price of wheat, seeds and grains, of which Ukraine is a major exporter, becoming hard to source and thus more expensive.
That’s the food perspective. But what about families trying to eat the *right* foods? The aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic has renewed calls for better lifestyles in the UK to combat the comorbidities which have led to the death of thousands through susceptibility of vulnerable adults to COVID-19. One of the best ways to affect change and improve outcomes for patients and their families is to eat a balanced diet, which in itself prevents worsening cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Ourworldindata.com discusses the affordability of a diet in context of total spending on food compared to income. Researchers define ‘affordability’ by whether someone can afford to spend below 60% of their income on getting a calorie sufficient diet. Globally, researchers estimate that in excess of 200 million people could not afford the most basic energy sufficient diet in 2017. We may have reached a threshold in society whereby junk food is more easily afforded than food groups which satisfy multivitamin and calorific requirements.
A fifth of the UK’s most deprived population would need to spend 40% of their income in 2021 to satisfy a healthy, reasonable diet, according to foodfoundation.org. In 2021, over 20% of ready meals were vegetarian, with a welcome drop in price for vegetarian and plant-based meals since last year’s survey. However, the projections for 2022 will surely be in deficit. A gold standard rubric for food affordability in the UK is The Eatwell Guide. Previously modelled by Public Health England, it states that a minimum of £5.99 per day is needed to satisfy healthy dietary intake. This may not sound like much, but multiplied for a nuclear family and young children, costs start to go up significantly. In 2020, the average cost of healthy foods in 2020 per 1,000 kilocalories was £7.00, compared to £2.41 for less heathy foods. This means that fast food and unhealthy options which pack more of a calorific punch suddenly become the go to option for a person struggling to make ends meet. This only serves to increase the healthcare burden in the future given that the majority of diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular disease presentations are linked to oily, fatty and rich foods. Thus, a person on a low budget is currently, although not acceptably, forced to make a decision between less quantity of food but higher quality, or the easy option of getting as much for their money as possible. For example, in 2021 the average price per 1,000 kilocalories of food high in sugar and/or fat was just £3.42 – 40% of the cost of more healthy products. This starkly demonstrates the contrast between public health policy, economic policy and the ability of an individual to make informed, emboldened decisions on their diet.
Here are some tips to reduce spending when considering a healthy, balanced diet:
Plan in advance: get a list of legumes, vegetables and fruits you want to see in your diet and stick only to these, avoiding picking up stuff that looks nice in the supermarket.
Drink tap water or low-cost mineral water when you are eating out.
Look in the clearance section: there are often grains and pulses with short shelf life which are put for clearance, and you can get a good deal in bulk (for example, 1kg bags of rice).
Cook in bulk: consider bulk making healthy foods to reheat and save as leftovers throughout the week – a little goes a long way.
Use the most of your oven – try cooking multiple meals for the week at one time in your oven to prevent overusing it and incurring higher energy tariffs.
Grow your own – where possible, consider starting a cabbage patch for healthy vegetables straight from your garden which further serves to benefit the ecological community around you.