Low income families forced to choose between healthy food or other essentials

By June Shannon Nutrition News   |   4th Oct 2021

New research by safefood highlights the challenges faced by people on low incomes to eat well

Families on low incomes need to spend up to one third (35%) of their weekly take home income to afford a healthy diet, new research has found.

The research by safefood, also highlighted the many challenges faced by families on low incomes in balancing the cost of a healthy, nutritional diet with other essential household expenses.

The safefood report “What is the cost of a healthy food basked in Republic of Ireland in 2020?” found that food costs were highest for a household on low income with two parents and two children, where the older child was in secondary school – for these families, food costs were 22 per cent higher than a similar household with younger children. It also found that households dependent on benefits spent up to 12 per cent more of their income on food than those where one adult was in employment.

Typically, households on a low-income tend to eat less well, which can contribute to higher levels of excess weight and corresponding health complications like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

"Food spending is the flexible element of the household budget,"

Joana da Silva, Chief Specialist in Nutrition, safefood

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 was €169 per week (35% of their household income). For a single parent living on benefits with two children in pre-school and primary school, the basket cost €103 per week (29% of their household income). By way of contrast, the most recent CSO data revealed that the average spend per household on food was 14.7 per cent of their income.

Introducing the report, Joana da Silva, Chief Specialist in Nutrition, safefood said, “Our research shows the continuing challenges for families on low income in affording a healthy food basket. The report identifies the cost of a minimum but acceptable standard that will allow them to live a life with dignity. The report is based on working with members of the public to reach agreement on the minimum needed to live and partake in the social and economic norms of everyday life. Food spending is the flexible element of the household budget and people often fill up on cheap food that’s nutritionally poor when prioritising other bills that need to be paid.”

Robert Thornton, Senior Research and Policy Officer with Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice continued “This research shines a light on the challenge of balancing the cost of a healthy food against other needs when on a low income. Managing on a tight budget, means families with children, single parents and pensioners have to make stark choices in how they spend their money”.

" Many low-income families are forced to buy cheap foods that are usually nutritionally poor but calorie-dense."

Orna O Brien, Dietitian, The Irish Heart Foundation

Commenting on the research, Orna O Brien, Dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said, ““It’s easy to see how the food basket quickly becomes the elastic part of the budget when you are also trying to meet essential expenses like rent and heating. All families deserve to be treated fairly and have the same chances to be healthy. However, many low-income families are forced to buy cheap foods that are usually nutritionally poor but calorie-dense. We all need to highlight this inequity and advocate for greater supports for these families to access affordable, nutritious food.”

The most recent data shows that 12.8 per cent of the population are at risk of poverty while the consistent poverty rate was 5.5 per cent.

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