What's wrong with cheap food?
I have a suspicion of mantras and a hatred of unquestioned assumptions. So once again, I’ve decided to put my head in the stocks so you can throw rotten fruit at me, and this time I’d like to take issue with the idea that cheap food = bad food. I know that people use the concept of ‘cheap’ to mean different things. But let’s stick to the basics: right now UK food prices are rising faster than most of Europe. How important is the cost of food?
Cheapness harms farmers (underpaid), small shopkeepers (undercut by big shopkeepers) and animals (kept in grim conditions), amongst other issues. I broadly agree (though I know that there are some pretty rich farmers out there), but we need to look at the other side too.
What’s good about cheap food? Well, if you’re poor, a lot. DEFRA’s 2009 Family Food report (made when prices were dropping, unlike now) shows that the lowest-income families spent over one-sixth of their entire household expenditure on food. Cheap food is crucial to their standards of living, and expensive food can cause real hardship by shifting the family’s available cash from clothing, housing and heating. The overall proportion that the poorest spent on food was actually marginally lower than in 2008, despite an overall food price increase of 5% in the cost of food.
This could mean several things (the data can only tell you so much so we must make some assumptions). One, that the poorest households are making better use of ingredients and shifting to more cost-efficient nutritional sources such as fresh vegetables, legumes and cheaper cuts of meat. Or two, that they are simply buying less food. Or three (and I find this more likely), that they are buying less nutritious, cheaper foods made from poorer-quality ingredients than they were before, or simply shifting to high-starch ingredients. The reason I suspect this is the case is that purchases of fruit are tied closely to income: the poorest 10% buy the least fruit, and purchases of vegetables also increase with income. Fresh fruit and veg is likely to make you healthier, but if a bag of apples is too expensive and a two-hour lamb stew sound like a lot of gas bill, those economy pies are going to look a damn sight more attractive.
Three million people in the UK are considered to be malnourished or at risk of malnourishment. These people tend to be the elderly, the isolated and the poor. There are many reasons why people are malnourished, but again, it’s hard to see high food prices causing them anything but misery.
I’d love to think that people simply shift their eating to wonderful, healthy, frugal food such as bean stews and pumpkin soups, but I suspect these are currently the domain of people with the knowledge and aptitude to cook. When I was a student I was broke and I simply couldn’t afford much more than value baked beans, economy long-life bread, and economy pickle. Yuk.
What’s the solution to all this? Loosening the grip that the supermarkets have on prices would be good, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. Teaching people to cook is essential, and that needs education, inspiration and encouragement. We need cooking in schools, although school cookery may have a shaky future. In the meantime we should buy our artisan breads and extra-matured cheeses and enjoy them. Just don’t sneer at the long-life value baked beans. What do you think?
Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.