A supposition most unlikely to be true about food prices

The Social Market Foundation tells us that poor people in Britain are obese because food for them in “food deserts” is so expensive.

More than a million people in the UK live in “food deserts” – neighbourhoods where poverty, poor public transport and a dearth of big supermarkets severely limit access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, a study has claimed.

Nearly one in 10 of the country’s most economically deprived areas are food deserts, it says – typically large out-of-town housing estates and deprived inner-city wards served by a handful of small, relatively expensive corner shops.

Public health experts are concerned that these neighbourhoods – which are often also “food swamps” with high densities of fast-food outlets – are helping to fuel a rise in diet-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes, as well as driving food insecurity.

As the report itself says:

Food is a key component of household budgets in the UK. Across the country, food accounts for about one in every ten pounds spent by households. For households in the bottom income decile (the poorest 10%), food accounts for about 15% of all expenditure and takes up about a fifth of household disposable income.

Just under a fifth (17%) of households surveyed as part of this research said groceries put a strain on their finances. For individuals with a household income of £10,000 or less, about two fifths (39%) said groceries were a strain on finances, as did about a quarter (23%) of those with a household income of between £10,000 and £20,000.

A strain on finances? Yes, obviously so, this is the definition of being poor, where everything is a strain upon finances.

But this idea that the expense of food - healthy food if you desire - is causing the obesity epidemic strikes us as most unlikely. For the remarkable thing about food in Britain today is how amazingly cheap it is by any historical or global standard:

Britons spend an average of 8% of their total household expenditure on food to eat at home. This is less than any other country apart from the US and Singapore, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor.

Food spending varies considerably around the world. Greeks spend 16%, while Peruvians spend 26%. Nigerians spend the most on food in relative terms - 59% of their household budget.

The full spreadsheet can be found here. That 15% of income for those poorer households puts them among Italy, Slovenia and Brazil as a portion spent upon food. Those three nations all suffering an outbreak of obesity? And, of course, that 15% is vastly lower than anyone in this country was spending a century ago when we were all worried about the malnutrition based stunting of the working classes.

We’re simply not willing to believe in this supposition that obesity is caused by the great expense of food in this country.