Millions of children in families too poor to afford a healthy diet

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Close to 4 million children are in households that can’t afford enough fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods to meet Government nutritional guidelines.


For the poorest fifth of families, providing a healthy diet is unaffordable, says the analysis

According to new analysis from independent think tank The Food Foundation, the poorest fifth of families, those earning less than £15,860, would have to set aside 42 per cent of their income after housing costs to satisfy Public Health England nutritional requirements, making providing a healthy diet most likely unaffordable.

The think tank says the unaffordability of a healthy diet for low-income households is highlighted by increased rates of childhood obesity in deprived areas of the country.

For its analysis, The Food Foundation compared the estimated cost of Public Health England’s (PHE) ‘Eatwell Guide’ – official guidance on what constitutes a healthy diet, to household income in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland Wales.

It estimates that a household consisting of two parents and two children aged two to four, would need to spend £95.48 per week to be able to follow the ‘Eatwell Guide’.

A household of two parents and two children, one aged 10 and the other 15, would need to spend £103.17 per week.

The think tank estimates that currently 47 per cent of all UK households with children do not spend enough on food to meet PHE’s recommendations for a healthy diet. This rises to 60 per cent for single parent families.

Case Study

Elaine is a mother of four from Thanet. Her husband had to quit his job due to ill health and they have recently had their benefits cut by £95 per week.

The family has around £50-£60 per week to spend on food. They find it is the least healthy options that are available within their budget.

Currently all of the children receive free school meals. However, Elaine is looking to go back to work this month and is worried that working could mean some of the children fall out of eligibility.

Elaine said, ‘I really try to make sure my children eat well, but what we are eating is not how I would really like them to eat.

‘I would never let my children go without, but I do go without. I have no social life unless it is something free. I can’t afford to go out for a coffee’.


Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said, ‘The Government’s measurement of household income highlights the fact that millions of families in the UK cannot afford to eat in line with the Government’s own dietary guidance. It’s crucial that a co-ordinated cross-Government effort develops policy that accounts for the cost of its recommended diet, and creates a food system that does not consign those on lower incomes to the risk of diet-related illness.’

Sharon Hodgson MP, chair of the Children’s Future Food Inquiry Committee, added, ‘It has always been a great concern to me that so many children and families in the UK are at risk of going hungry, or going without a healthy meal each day.

‘It cannot be right that nearly 50 per cent of households in the UK currently have insufficient food budgets to meet the Government’s recommended Eatwell Guide. A healthy diet, which we know is important for our health and development, should not be unaffordable to so many people.

‘I hope that the Government will look into this issue as a matter of urgency, in order to make eating a healthy diet more affordable.’

Commenting on the report, Annie Denny, nutrition development manager at the Early Years Nutrition Partnership, which provides training and support to early years settings, said, ‘Ensuring young children have access to healthy and nutritious food is at the very heart of what we do. We’re deeply saddened to hear that children growing up in lower income families may not be able to get enough fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods to meet the official dietary guidelines.

‘Our expert nutritionists can work with settings, finding ways to make healthy meals, even on a very tight budget. The importance of the early years cannot be underestimated. These years offer a small window of opportunity, if you are able to establish positive eating behaviours during this time they might track into later life, so getting nutrition right at this early stage in life is very important.’

However, PHE said that adults are currently spending what it costs for a balanced diet on unhealthy foods.

Its chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone explained, ‘This report suggests a healthy balanced diet in line with the Eatwell Guide costs around £6 per day for an adult – we are currently spending about the same amount eating poorly.

‘Our food choices are affected by other factors such as the volume of fast food outlets on our streets and promotions of unhealthy foods in our shops, highlighting why our work to improve the nation’s diet is so important.’

  • For the Food Foundation analysis click here
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