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Parents buy unhealthy foods to support family social wellbeing, says new study

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
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Low income parents living in England purchase unhealthy foods not only due to availability, cheapness and marketing, but to compensate for non-food related activities they cannot afford to do with their children, according to a new study.

The report from the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London found parents that are unable to make visits to soft play centres or go on holiday, for example, compensate instead by providing unhealthy food ‘treats’.

Their buying of unhealthy foods is also swayed by them being cheap, easy to access and heavily marketed.

Such purchases tend to turn into frequent routines, such as family visits to fast-food outlets like a fish and chip shop, kebab shop, or burger restaurants.

Food related events at home involving unhealthy treats have also become regular such as ‘family snack time’ while watching a film or playing a game.  

The report analysed the food buying habits of 60 parents on low incomes from deprived areas in three regions of England: Great Yarmouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Lewisham in London.

Participants of the study were over 18, a parent of a child in school or nursery, and the main shopper in the family. 56 of the 60 parents taking part were women, which researchers say shows “the highly gendered nature of food work”.

The analysis was conducted through semi-structured interviews on how parents purchase, prepare and consume foods with their family, as well as how the roles of different family members, including children, impact those actions.

Following these interviews, 22 participants took part in an additional “shop-along interview”, where they guided a researcher around a shop of their choice, showing what they bought and explaining the reasoning behind the purchase.

Some 58 participants also took part in a “photo elicitation” exercise for a week, where they took photos of things that made it easier or harder to buy the foods they wanted for their families.

The study’s authors recommend making several changes to current food policy to improve the situation. These include removing unhealthy food promotions and food service outlets from the food environment and replacing them with healthier promotions and outlets.

They say this will make accessing healthier foods easier and will also allow families to maintain access to opportunities for social wellbeing.

Another recommendation includes increasing the affordability of activities that parents and their children enjoy by introducing more discounts on local attractions.

Researchers also advise introducing more vouchers for foods which are not just nutritionally healthy, but widely consumed or desired by parents and children. They should be based on already existing examples such as the Alexandra Rose vouchers which allow low income families to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the UK.

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Principal Investigator of the study and Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London said: “Given the wonderful food available in this country, it’s a travesty how many people’s health is damaged by poor quality diets. This study shows that the pathway forward involves understanding how people experience food in their everyday realities.

“Policy to address inequalities will only work if it recognises that food is more than just nutrition and must meet a wider range of people’s needs, such as social and economic well-being.”

This isn’t the first time children from low income families have struggled to access nutritious foods in England this year. Last month, experts blamed the Government for encouraging families to feed their children ultra-processed foods through their Help for Households campaign.

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