With pressures on reducing waste and animal consumption for the benefit of the natural world, we’re often pressured into thinking to eat well we must pay for it. For families who already struggle to put food on the table, this social pressure can be too much. How can we ask a family to reduce their animal consumption when they struggle to feed themselves on what they can access? Surely the real problem we must try to tackle is people’s access to nutritious, healthy food?

What It Means To Eat Well

Governments around the world provide residents with a guide to healthy eating. This guide provides recommendations on how to eat to lead a healthy lifestyle and reduce our risk of diet-related disease. This gives the individual the responsibility of choosing healthy foods and aims to educate us on how to do so. 

In the UK, this guide is called the EatWell Guide, the US has MyPlate and Australia uses the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating. As nutrition data has progressed, these guides have replaced the well-known food pyramid that many of us grew up with. These guides are provided, along with advice on portion sizes and servings per day, to all residents of each country. This means that while the guides provide advice and guidance on what we should eat to achieve a healthy, balanced diet, they’re only based on an average of the overall population.

This is a limitation of population health advice as nutrition is very much an individual matter. Each person’s requirements are different and it can be difficult to provide advice on a mass scale. Therefore, an average is used so that we can aim for the recommendations and most people are covered. What these guides don’t take into account is the accessibility of the foods they recommend. 

The Price of Healthy Eating

A 2018 study by The Food Foundation found a low income family would have to spend 30% of their disposable income to eat according to the UK government’s EatWell Guide. In contrast, a higher income family would only need to spend about 12%. This shows a stark difference in the availability of food in the UK, even to eat to government recommended levels. 

When you’re put in a situation where you must survive, your fight or flight response kicks into gear. The most common scenario given when explaining this response is to imagine you’re being attacked by a lion. In this situation, your instinct is to survive, therefore, you must choose whether to fight the lion or flee it. In this instance, many things are happening in your body to help you survive. Your heart races, digestion slows and blood travels to your muscles. Therefore, during this response, you’re less likely to be hungry as it’s not a priority whilst you try to reduce the threat you’re facing. 

Someone living on a low income who struggles to cover the cost of accommodation, utilities, school fees, commuting and food, will likely be living under prolonged stress. These are a lot of significant things to worry about and can often place food choices and learning a new skill (e.g. how to make a new type of food) lower on the priority list. Add difficulty in accessing healthy food and you can see the price of healthy eating can be just too high.

Just Eat Soup!

This topic of food insecurity has again been given the spotlight as footballer Marcus Rashford campaigns to end child food poverty by extending the free school meals program for vulnerable children during the school holidays. MPs recently voted against the motion to extend free school meals, sparking much debate online. How can the UK government fund the Eat Out To Help Out scheme to apparently help save the hospitality industry, but refuse to extend free meals to vulnerable children? Since the vote and in response to public outcry, the government has agreed to provide £170m to feed children during the holidays.

It’s often argued that eating healthy isn’t actually that expensive. After all, fruits and vegetables are relatively cheap and often cheaper than packaged foods. Many food bloggers boast the best recipes for batch meals and making nutritious foods on a budget. I’ve seen countless posts on social media arguing that eating healthy isn’t as expensive as people claim. However, there’s more to it than the cost of the food itself.

For example, you could buy a bunch of vegetables and make a big batch of soup. However, to tell people to “just make soup” is the modern day equivalent of Marie Antoinette telling her subjects to “eat cake”. This is not an acceptable response as it misses the point. It is, however, a naïve response from people who most likely haven’t experienced food poverty. I myself have naively thought how accessible food can be if you avoid fancy “superfoods” and simply choose fresh fruit and vegetables. This, however, isn’t as simple as it may sound. Consider this scenario proposed to the House of Lords in “Hungry for Change: fixing the failures in food” earlier this year.

Food Deserts

Before even thinking about the nutritional value of a meal, a low income family first has the hurdle of finding affordable fruits and vegetables. A study conducted in 2018 by The Social Market Foundation and Kelloggs found that “10.2 million individuals in Great Britain live in food deserts”. Global Citizen defines a food desert as an area of 5,000 – 15,000 people that is served by two or fewer supermarkets.

Growing up in Australia there were four supermarkets you could choose from. Two were the major ones that everyone shopped at, one was an expensive chain supplying local goods and the other was Aldi. When I moved to the UK, I couldn’t believe just how many different supermarkets were available, or that they sat on a scale from budget to posh.

At the moment, my local supermarket is an M&S; one of the more expensive supermarkets. I have to travel at least a 20 minute walk to get to a cheaper supermarket, which just isn’t practical on most days. I don’t drive, so if I walk that 20 minutes, I’m going to have to walk back or face the added cost of an Uber. This means I can’t bulk buy unless I want to add the cost of a taxi to my bill.

People without access to a supermarket have to rely on other means for their food. These could be corner shops, mini markets, farmers markets, service stations or fast food outlets. These options can be both expensive and have reduced access to fresh and nutritious foods.

Price of a banana from a supermarket compared to at a corner shop

Even when healthier food options are provided in these areas, they can often be much more expensive than in a supermarket. Bananas in a supermarket often cost around 10p each, so roughly 60p for a bunch of 6. I once paid about £1.80 for 4 bananas in a corner shop. That’s 4.5 times the average amount you’d pay in a supermarket! So, when money is already tight and food already inaccessible, you can see why people don’t want to spend more for healthier foods.

Can It Be Fixed?

So, what can be done? How can we tackle this problem that millions face each day? Is it a problem for the government? For businesses? For charities? Or does the responsibility lay with the individual still to make those healthy food choices?

The simplest way to approach this problem is to increase accessibility. If the food isn’t there, how can people make the choice? They don’t have a choice. If their only choice is between paying a lot for healthier food or paying less to simply eat, what do you think someone struggling with money will choose?

Increasing accessibility to fresh and nutritious food gives everyone the chance to live a healthy life. It’s the first step needed in bridging the food inequality gap. Accessibility does not simply refer to where the food is geographically, although this is very important. It also refers to the cost of the food. 

Unhealthy food options are generally cheaper because the ingredients used can be bought in bulk and used across a variety of foods a brand offers. They are also generally longer lasting than healthier and fresher foods, therefore increasing shelf life and production volume. 

At the end of the day, food brands are running a business and need to make a profit. Although their goal is to feed populations, their priority is profit. This is not demonic, it’s simply business. Businesses are influenced by consumer demand, therefore if we demand healthier food options then they will make it. However, someone choosing between eating or not doesn’t really have much room to demand. 

Taxes and Advertising Bans

Governments have intervened before, such as with the introduction of the sugar tax and the availability of free school meals to vulnerable children. The latter is something that many children rely on. This program feeds millions of children in the UK during term time, and for many, this free meal is the only meal they eat each day. So, thankfully, due to public pressure, the government has agreed to extend the program during the school holidays too.

Interventions such as the sugar tax are well intended, however have put the cost on the consumer as food prices have simply increased. Perhaps it would be more beneficial if the cost of healthy foods were to go down?

Coca Cola with pile of sugar

The UK government’s proposal to ban adverts for foods high in sugar, salt and fat before 9pm is their latest attempt at tackling obesity. This proposition comes with obvious backlash from businesses, who will lose a lot of revenue from advertising. We can only hope that this move will encourage businesses to advertise healthier food options more and make healthier food options more accessible to all. As the proposal is still new, it’s yet to be seen how effective it could be.

Educating a Nation

Another factor that must be considered is the level of education provided on making healthy food choices. The government’s traffic light labelling is an attempt at making everyone’s lives easier with a quick colour guide showing fat, sugar, salt and energy levels in food products. Unfortunately, there has been little to no education on how to effectively use this.

It’s important to note here that this traffic light labelling system is under potential review as the UK leaves the EU, so there may be a new system in place in the coming years. Hopefully the government provides adequate education on any new system they introduce.

There’s also very little nutrition education provided to children, families and even doctors, who people suffering from diet-related disease turn to. Instead, the onus is on the individual to seek out this information if they are so inclined. 

As a nutrition student, I know just how much information there is to learn to really understand how the body works and the importance of nutrition. However, this information can be simplified to help individuals make healthy food choices in their day to day lives. One does not need to know how the digestive system works to be able to choose between high and low sodium products, but they do need to know the importance of reducing sodium intake. 

An increase in nutrition education for children is needed, but so is how to apply that education. It’s all well and good knowing that carrots are good for you, but how do you eat them? How do you prepare a carrot for a meal? It may seem simple to some, but many people struggle with this because they have either never eaten the food before or haven’t had to prepare a meal themselves with it before.

Our reliance on ready meals and prepared food means we have lost touch with how to feed ourselves in the most basic ways. It’s also perpetuated an unhealthy relationship with food for many people, discouraging them to bother prioritising healthy food choices at all. 

There’s also a misconception that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are less healthy than fresh. Whilst canned fruits and vegetables can have higher levels of salt and sugar, there are options without. Frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen at the optimal time to ensure freshness. These options are no less healthy than the fresh alternatives and often last much longer. Therefore, they are often more appropriate for those on a budget looking to make the most of their purchases.

What Can We Do?

All in all, the issue of food inequality isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s not as simple as just making soup and batch cooking. Nor is it as simple as a sugar tax or banning advertising. It’s a much bigger problem that will take a long time to tackle. One that we don’t really have an answer to.

So what can we do? We can show empathy to those who are suffering. Reducing the amount of food we throw away simply because we don’t want it. Perhaps think about donating the extra food in your cupboards. Food banks are always happy to take food to help the vulnerable they serve. Food sharing has become increasingly popular too, with apps like Olio and many Facebook groups sharing unwanted and unused foods. 

We can keep asking our government to do more to help. Increase the amount of supermarkets available to people. Reduce the obstacles that stop them accessing healthy food options. Encourage nutrition education in schools and in communities. Don’t put the nations most vulnerable at greater risk while you line your pockets. 

We can share what we know. The goal of my blog is to share recipes and cooking tips with you all to help you increase your food knowledge and make eating well accessible to all. Perhaps you have a cheap and healthy recipe you can share with a friend or neighbour. Maybe offer to cook a meal for a friend in need. Perhaps you know someone who is struggling and maybe just needs to know that someone cares. Do what you can so people know they’re not alone.

On that note, if there is anything you’d like to know about making healthy food choices and feeding you and your family, pop it in the comments. I want to share my knowledge of food and help you live the healthy life you deserve. Because eating well should not come at a higher cost.