When the cost of healthy eating gets too high

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Preaching the benefits of healthy eating has little point when the cost of purchasing healthy foods in South Australia can cost as much as a third of a low-earner’s income, according to Flinders University researchers.

A new public health study has found that the comparatively higher cost of eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet can be prohibitively expensive for people on low incomes, and is likely to drive them towards cheap, processed foodstuffs with high fat, salt and sugar content.

The study, led by the Head of the Discipline of Public Health, Professor Paul Ward, surveyed the cost of a weekly “shopping basket” of readily available healthy foods purchased in metropolitan Adelaide and rural centres in South Australia.

“You read a lot in the media about housing stress, but it applies to food as well,” Professor Ward said.

In the case of welfare recipients, over a third of their disposable income is required to purchase healthy foods. In stark contrast, Professor Ward said, the proportion of income required to eat healthily by the top third of income earners is about nine per cent.

“With increasing obesity, governments tend to focus their attention on telling people to eat healthy, but the problem is that the more unaffordable healthy food becomes, then the more difficult it becomes for individuals to take the healthy eating option,” he said.

“If it’s chewing up a third of your income to potentially eat healthily, and you have increasing utility bills and rental or mortgage payments, something’s got to give.

“It’s easy for governments to say that it’s an individual choice to eat unhealthily, but the research shows that it’s not a choice but an individual difficulty because of how much food costs.

The next step is to buy energy-dense but nutrient-poor food, because that is all they can afford.”

Food is becoming more expensive because of issues that include drought and flooding as well as increased shipping and transport costs.

“These are real costs that producers have to pass on to consumers,” Professor Ward said. And because of intrinsic factors such as the short shelf life of fresh fruit and vegetables, the price of healthy foods rises more steeply than that of processed foods.

Professor Ward said that to combat potential health problems such as obesity and diabetes, some governments overseas were trialling programs that reduced the costs of healthy foods in low-income areas.

“That approach has been shown to be effective in increasing the purchase of healthy foods in those locations,” he said.

Professor Ward said other research that models the consequence of increased uptake of healthy foods shows marked long-term reductions in diet-related disease including diabetes and some cancers.

“The long-term impact of something pretty straightforward is very powerful,” he said.

“Food Stress in Adelaide: The Relationship between Low Income and the Affordability of Healthy Food” is published in the Journal of Environment and Public Health.

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6 thoughts on “When the cost of healthy eating gets too high

  1. As a low income earner I have been saying just what this article says for a long time. As a single mother, it has been a concern when feeding my kids properly has been impossible a lot of the time (their stomachs were full at least). It is most certainly not just “individual choice” that makes poorer people eat unhealthily and jusy telling them what they ought to eat isn’t much help either. I am glad this research has proved what is sadly obvious to some of us, now the next step is someone needs to show how giving people access to healthier food will in the long term cost the tax-payer less 😉

  2. This is so true! My 7 yo son and I have been living on 2 minute noddles and peanut butter sandwiches for 3 days now, because I don’t get paid until tomorrow.. After rent, electricity bill, gas bill, phone bill (Yes with a 7 yo I do need a phone, not a luxury), $19 in petrol for 2 weeks, and the food I did buy, there was no way I could afford to buy ‘healthy’ food. Sadly, the cheap food that can last for the 2 weeks is the highly processed, full of fat kind of foods.
    Poverty begets poverty. I wonder when the government will realise that they will have a generation of poor, unhealthy people that they will be paying for in the long run through health care cost. Heart disease, obesity are just a couple of things that everyone will have to deal with either personally or through tax dollars. Because you bet the gov will pass on any rising health care costs to the tax payers!

  3. A couple of points. Firstly, my daughter and her friends are ‘freegans’ that is they supplement tbeir diet with free fresh food from supermarket dump bins. The amount of food thrown out daily by the duopoly must be staggering. Why not sell it at a cheaper price?

    Secondly, as a columnist I once calculated the costs of the raw materials in a packet of pre-prepared macaroni cheese against the cost of raw materials to make your own. The raw materials – the best raw materials – were considerably less than the packaged product. Yet those same people who cannot afford raw and fresh ingredients buy these products. I’d guess it’s cooking skills that are lacking.

    And thirdly, the old chestnut. How about a tax on junk foods to pa a subsidy to market gardeners? It would repay itself in improved community health swiftly.

    The more science examines the causes of disease, the more they are looking at our nutrition.

  4. Too true, add availability, lack of safe and convient public transportation (small local markets in low-income neighborhoods usually offer a minimum of fresh foods and all products are at much higher cost) and many other factors. How do these external pressures allow a healthy choice? It’s easier to blame the individual. And governments need to recognize these facts and increase food allowances.

  5. Healthy food means REAL FOOD. Real fruit, real vegies, real meat. Not the expensive stuff in that tiny isle of the supermarket purporting to be the “natural” version of processed foods you find everywhere else.

    My partner and I are low income earners. We are “freegans” and are not ashamed to admit it. It’s disgusting how much real food goes to waste. But we also put in the energy to shop around for cheapest prices – which means going to more than one supermarket or grocer when we go shopping – you would do it for anything else you purchase, why not food? We are also fortunate enough to be able to grow some vegies too – something that is managed by people all over the world with less space than us.

    What surprises me most is that others are adamant that the high-fat, high-salt, processed foods are cheaper … they really aren’t. It just depends where you go and what you do with what you get. It’s not that hard.

    Australia is now the most obese nation in the world (above America), and we are by NO MEANS the poorest. So to say that poor eating habits is because food is too expensive doesn’t make sense.

    Ironically, REAL food has become the rubbish, and RUBBISH food has become accepted as the norm.

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