BBC Food blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

What's wrong with cheap food?

Post categories:

Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 12:51 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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?

Baked beans on a plate.

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    starts well, but amounts to nothing other than a passing comment about not sneering at poor people. Perhaps some more constructive advice for budget nutrition?

  • Comment number 2.

    What we need on this site are more ideas as to how to make the best of cheaper ingredients. Any suggestions for something interesting with 'value' beans? There are some fantastic recipes on this site, but I don't have the money to buy the fine cuts of meat or more exotic ingredients so I need to learn techniques that help me to make tasty, nutritious and interesting food within my budget.

    We also have to recognise that many people struggle to warm up a tin of beans let alone create a 'Masterchef' standard meal in ten minutes, so we've got to demonstrate that cooking does not have to complicated or expensive, but it is still possible to come up with some tasty food with limited means.

  • Comment number 3.

    There has been much discussion of this issue over the weekend on our messageboard at

    Please continue to share your views and in the meantime, here are some highlights:

    londonbarleysugar: This is certainly an interesting blog and one that may stir a heated debate. There are so many reasons for the food choices we make of which cost is only one part - availability, know-how, habit, culture, values and personal preferences also come into it. I would be surprised if people who had previously eaten a healthy diet with fruit and vegetables, would change to a high starch diet due to food prices rising, as the writer seems to suggest. I take a more optimistic view that most would fall into the category of making better use of ingredients.

    joanbunting: I think i may be about to be shot down in flames, but......I agree with a lot of Stefan's points, but when I was in a position, a few years ago, to work with some of the poorest families there were thre main factors: 1) Lack of even the most basic cooking skills, not the fault of the people in question but prefectly solveable in schools, community groups etc. This one I could do. 2) Shortage of even basic fresh ingredients or things like cheap flour etc - too far from out of town supermarkets or city centre markets, and only close to very expensive local shops. 3) Too much money spent on smoking - again understandable in a way, if a fag is your only pleasure in life.

    Capt-Lightning: Tend to agree with most of what you say, though I'd say that most of the problem is down to the lack of culinary skills. I'll not say cooking skills, because I think it extends to the knowledge of ingredients, nutrition etc... It reminds me of an incident some years ago when I was in a supermarket looking for some fresh herbs. I was moaning about the aisles of ready meals and sauces when a young female asked "you gotta problem?" I said "yes, I can't find the fresh herbs". She just said "oh, I wouldn't know wot they were". However, I don't think that access to supermarkets is such a problem - many run free buses (they did in Hampshire anyway - not the poorest area!)

    jamesandkatherina: I am involved in an area of Essex called Jaywick, amongst the top three most deprived areas of the UK. Increase in benefit means have another child, queue up at 7-30am for your White Lightening "cider", breakfast for the kids: a bought in sandwich, perhaps a bag of crisps... There's always money for fags and counterfeit baccy. There has been scheme after scheme, but you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Even a van twice a week with discounted fruit and veg is only used by the elderly.

    Pampy: Whilst I agree that more needs to be done to teach people how to shop and cook, you have to bear in mind that for some sections of society, it is very difficult. All my life, I have loved cooking but now find myself in ill-health, out of work, with impaired mobility and no transport. The nearest bus stop is nearly a mile away up a steep hill so getting to it is out of the question. There are no local shops or farmers' markets and our local market is being driven into the ground by high rents (it's in the town centre). I am not local to this area and have no family to help me so I have to rely on a Community Transport scheme which will take me to the supermarket, where I can get all my shopping in one place. However, this is a restricted service which has to be booked well in advance - and it often gets cancelled with little notice. As a result, I often run out of perishable fresh food so I'm afraid that in these instances, I have to resort to a more unhealthy diet. I just can't see any way round it.

    kari48: I used to teach people with learning disabilities how to cook in one of the most deprived areas where I live. Most of them were independant and we used to have shopping trips and I would show them the best ways to cook and watch the pennies with what ever they bought. I used to try and introduce at least one new food each week. I would just do a taster: if they liked it fine, if they didn't not a problem. I have had tonight a cheese, onion potato and baked bean bake of which I am on my second helping - total cost 75p!

    ZexxysWife: It's all about our society today. Fifty, even thirty years ago, women were still home keepers. Their priority was to take good care of the kids and family, and cook. Not that I have anything against building a career, but the core of a happy and healthy society is how our kids grow up and what they are looking up to at home. It's not about cooking schools, classes etc.. but mothers, unselfishness and care for the others. This sounds too idealistic, but if we think about it, "I don't have a time" is the key sentence that lead to all of this.

    fricassee: Stefan Gates made some good points in his blog. If you can cook you can generally shop intelligently and economise to a degree. But something's badly wrong when half-a-dozen pieces of fresh fruit cost more than laden carrier bag of frozen burgers or a large portion from the chippy.

    DirtyPrettyThing: I know what you're saying and I would love to buy my food from local markets and butchers/greengrocers etc but I find these places are never open outside of 9-5. All of my local farmers' markets are on week days, so no chance of me getting to them unless I take the day off! I can't bring myself to shop at Tesco as I hate the place so end up spending a flippin' fortune in Waitrose.

    sesley: The fact is that food is more expensive. The imported stuff like grains, rice, sugar and coffee is increasing in price, plus there's the added fuel rise. People living on a tight budget will buy three chickens in tesburys for £10 because they do not have the luxury for more expensively reared organic free-range ones. Supermarkets - no matter how much you hate them - provide produce to suit most budgets and varieties.

  • Comment number 4.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 5.

    "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?

    Being interested in food and what you eat. Cooking. Cooking well. If you don't know how to cook, learn, teach yourself. Become a good cook. Understanding food, how it grows, how to store it, what nutrition it has, when it grows, growing it yourself, if and when possible.

    Stefan Gates, your problem as a student wasn't that you couldn’t afford much more than value baked beans, economy long-life bread, and economy pickle, it was that that was all you thought you could eat with the money you had. Your problem was you. You lacked imagination and initiative in the food department. Every high street has or had a greengrocer, a butcher, a fishmonger. Some have markets and whole food shops, ethnic shops. I ate very well as a student, just as I did before and afterwards.

    Eating well has little to do with cost and much to do with knowledge. Human beings are all about our brains as is how well we eat.

    I bet I could take the cost of your value baked beans, economy long-life bread, and economy pickle and make you a meal or meals fit for a king. Or queen. Or anyone else for that matter.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Planning ahead for each weeks meals, no tolerance for waste and keeping an eye on real bargains help to keep food costs down. Also, a lot of "own brand" products are just as good and a lot cheaper than paying for names.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.