Yesterday a report was released with details on what it costs families in Northern Ireland to ‘eat healthy’ and I was seriously surprised at the results. The report, which was funded by SafeFood, The Consumer Council and The Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland, found that a family of four would need to spend £153 per week in order to eat healthily. This figure really shocked me as our food budget per month is £250 (ie £62.50 per week).
I knew I’d need to investigate further because at this point I had started to panic that I was massively underspending on feeding our family a healthy diet.
I downloaded the report and got stuck in, the key findings for me were the following;
- The total weekly cost of a minimum essential food basket for a two-parent, two-child household type (primary-school and secondary-school age) is £153.01 (approximately £22 per day).
- The cost of a minimum essential food basket depends on the age and number of people in the household. In particular, the cost of providing food for an adolescent is similar to that for an adult.
- The sub-category ‘meat’ accounts for the largest share of the food basket for both household types – one-quarter of the basket in each case.
- There was a consensus among the focus groups that spending on takeaways and extra food for visitors and for Christmas was an important part of the food basket for both households.
The report goes on to stipulate that families, ie those mentioned in point 1, who are on benefits, would need to spend 44% of their benefits on food in order to eat a healthy diet. Now, food poverty is a serious issue and for too many people in Northern Ireland it’s a harsh reality, but I took issue with some of these figures and I saw 5 key points in the methodology that may have been valid with the focus groups, but are not conducive to eating well on a budget.
- Brands: The pricing calculations did include own brand products, but ‘value’ products were excluded from the baskets. There are plenty of products where the Value equivalent is indistinguishable from the brand leader so this would be an easy win.
- Meat: All of the main meals contained meat and so did the majority of the lunches. If this is accounting for 25% of a weekly food budget, introducing a couple of meat-free meals would go some way to reducing the figure. Similarly, where chicken was included in a meal, it was always premium chicken breast and not cheaper cuts of meat such as chicken thigh or turkey breast.
- Economies of Scale: Bulking out the dishes they priced for, such as spaghetti bolognese would ensure the meal was stretched a little further and could do a lunch for adults the next day. Also, the staples used can be bought in bulk for cheaper – pasta, rice etc.
- Tesco: I can totally see why the report has chosen Tesco for their pricing, it’s market domination in Nothern Ireland is undeniable but it is far from the cheapest option for people in NI. In fact, in a 2015 mySupermarket study, Tesco failed to emerge as the cheapest in any popular food group.
- Takeaways: This is harsh but true… takeaways are not an essential part of any monthly meal plan. Certainly not if you’re struggling to pay for food and doubly so if you’re trying to ‘eat healthy’.
All things considered, I think the study has probably taken a pretty accurate snapshot of what family diets are like currently in Northern Ireland and it was not meant to be instructive but I do think it highlights the need for proper food education in schools as if you know how to cook and have better knowledge around food, there’d be no need to spend a whopping £153 per week on food.