Low-income families need to spend up to half of weekly income to afford a healthy food basket

Low-income families in Northern Ireland now need to spend up to almost half (46%) of their weekly income to afford a healthy food basket that meets basic nutritional needs, new research has found. The research by safefood and the Food Standards Agency in NI has revealed the challenges facing low-income families in Northern Ireland in balancing the cost of a healthy, nutritional diet with other essential household expenses. Typically, households on a low-income tend to eat less well and this can contribute to higher levels of excess weight and its health complications like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The research found that food costs were highest for a low-income household with an older child of post primary school age, costing approximately one third more than a similar household with younger children. It also found that households dependent on benefits spent up to 14% more of their income on food than households where one adult was in employment. The cost of eating a healthy balanced diet for a family of four living on benefits with two adults and two children in primary and secondary school is £162 per week (46% of their household income). A healthy food basket for a single parent living on minimum wage with two children in pre-primary and primary school would cost £105 per week (25% their household income). For a pensioner living on their own it would cost £61 per week to eat a healthy balanced diet (32% of their household income). Introducing the report, Joana Da Silva, Chief Specialist in Nutrition, safefood said, “Managing on a tight budget means that families with children, single parents and pensioners have to make stark choices in how they spend their money. “Food spending is the flexible element of the household budget."

FSA Northern Ireland Dietary Health policy lead, Fionnuala Close continued:

“While many families across Northern Ireland can enjoy a healthy diet, other households on a low-income struggle to make a limited budget go further and tend to eat less well, which can lead to health inequalities.

"The 2020 Food Basket research builds on an evidence base that is helping to shape Northern Ireland’s policies to address food need amongst the most vulnerable in our society.”

Food poverty is an issue that encompasses both the lack of access to a nutritionally adequate diet and the impact this has on health as well as the ability to participate socially through food. One Ballyclare parent who has faced the reality of providing food for his family on a tight budget has shared his experiences as part of a Consumer Council film “Hand to Mouth: Accessing healthy, affordable food on a low income” to help highlight the issues facing some low-income families across Northern Ireland. Craig, a father of two from Ballyclare said: “When my partner lost her job, it was a bit daunting, and I felt I had no back up. The whole thing was a complete disaster.

"We had to cut down and make changes. Some days I had to rely on family members and brought my children to their house for dinner.

"Last year was so tough especially with the cold weather and having to buy oil just after Christmas. But I got help from a food bank, they actually delivered food to my home.” Philippa McKeown-Brown, Head of Food Policy at The Consumer Council added “The Consumer Council was keen to produce a short film ‘Hand to Mouth’ to accompany the Minimum Essential Food Basket research, which explores the difficulties people can face accessing a healthy, affordable and enjoyable diet on a limited budget. “In the film we hear from parents affected by a loss of income due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the added strain of feeding their kids around the clock whilst schools were shut.

"With the summer school holidays just around the corner, there will be a lot of families again worried about making the food go further.”