Why am I writing about austerity on a food blog? Aren’t food blogs for foodies and people who love cooking? Shouldn’t I just stick to sharing recipes and giving culinary tips? Perhaps – but austerity affects a lot of people and eating healthily and exercising is something we all need to do. According to new reports, almost half of Britons will be obese by 2045 if current trends are not halted. A record number of primary school children are leaving school severely obese – more than 22,000 children! Is it possible that austerity is responsible for this trend?
What does austerity mean?
The Oxford dictionary definition of austerity is ‘difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure’.
Austerity measures and the government
The first austerity measures were introduced in late 2008. In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government embarked on a programme of austerity in response to the financial crisis of 2008. After eight years of cuts and tax increases austerity continues to hurt a lot of people.
Theresa May did say at the Conservative Party Conference that austerity was over, but the Institute of Fiscal Studies has made it clear that there are still several billion pounds of welfare budget cuts scheduled in the coming years which will make hundreds of thousands of families worse off. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank found that the welfare cuts will continue to hurt the poorest households, despite Philip Hammond’s budget announcement that austerity was coming to an end.
Is austerity putting people into poverty?
Few could argue that the austerity measures introduced since 2010 have not pushed people into poverty. In fact, austerity has hit poor people the hardest Listed below are just a few frightening facts:
- Rough sleeping has risen 169% since 2010 (Homeless Link).
- Child poverty is increasing and now stands at 30% of children.
- Health & social care spending cuts since 2010 are linked to nearly 120,000 excess deaths in England (UCL).
- Since 2011 life expectancy has flatlined (Office of National Statistics).
- More than 1.5 million people in the UK, including 350,000 children, experienced destitution last year according to the Joseph Rountree Foundation.
- In-work poverty is the problem of our age – 2.8 million children and 2.6 million parents are trapped in poverty despite their family working (jrf.org.uk).
- Universal Credit has transformed from a poverty reducing measure to a poverty increasing measure (jointpublicissues.org.uk ).
- Austerity is driving people to food banks, and even the government is investigating whether any areas of Department for Work and Pensions policy or operational practice may have contributed to the rise in demand.
As an indication as to how bad the situation is, a senior United Nations investigator is currently making an official visit to the UK to research the connection between the austerity programme and the rise in poverty. This is the United Nations first visit to a western European country in more than five years!
Perhaps the Labour MP Frank Field sums up the situation when he said for “the first time in post-war history, the state has become a generator of destitution”.
Can austerity really make you fat?
Doesn’t poverty make you thin?
Years ago this was true – being fat was a sign of health and prosperity. It meant you didn’t have to engage in manual labour and could afford plentiful quantities of food. Rich people were fat and poor people were thin! Look at the picture of Henry VIII (in his later years), when it is suggested that he consumed in excess of 5,000 calories a day, and compare it to the image of poor children in Victorian England, where their staple diet was bread – with some cheese, milk and potatoes if they were lucky!
(Barnado’s Boy. Taken from the book East End 1888)
Today the opposite is true – research shows that low income children and adults are more likely to be overweight than better-off families. Data from the National Child Measurement Programme for children in the year 2016/17 reveals that more deprived areas have a much higher rate of overweight and obese children, compared to the more well-off areas. At the age of 11, the poorest British children are, on average, 2kg heavier than those of the wealthiest families, which is the exact opposite of the figures in 1946 ( The Lancet 1/4/18).
There is also the argument that being slim is now a sign of prosperity because it shows that you can afford to eat healthily and have a gym membership or personal trainer, and you have the leisure time to exercise.
Why are we eating junk food?
A study of nineteen European countries shows that UK families buy more ultra-processed food than any others in Europe, accounting to 50.7% of the diet. So why do UK families choose to eat junk food?
The Collins Dictionary defines junk food as ‘food that is low in nutritional value, often highly processed or ready-prepared, and eaten instead of or in addition to well-balanced meals’.
Junk food is cheaper than healthy food – isn’t it?
The general assumption is that healthy food is more expensive than junk food, but a report suggests that it is cheaper to buy healthy and nutritious food than it is to buy junk food. Their research found that the ingredients for a nutritious meal can be bought for significantly less than the cost of junk food, including takeaways. They found that with the exception of fish, all the food groups recommended in the UK government’s Eatwell Guide can be bought for less than £2 per kg and a wide range of vegetables are available for less than £1 per kg. The recommendation of eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can be met for as little as 30p.
A plate of chips is undoubtedly cheaper than a nutritionally balanced meal.
If the meal prepared is not eaten because family members prefer processed foods, then it is likely to discourage experimentation with healthy foods and it is wasted money if the meal has to be thrown away.
Junk food needs little or no preparation or cooking and it’s quick to eat.
Takeaways are so convenient!
A report from Public Health England revealed that England’s poorest areas are fast food hotspots, with 5 times more outlets found in these communities than in the most affluent areas. It suggests that children exposed to these outlets may find it more difficult to choose healthier options.
Rotherham, which has the worst levels of obesity in Britain, has had an almost 50% increase in its number of takeaways over the past eight years and these outlets now comprise almost 60% of all its food retailers.
Academics are convinced that those with the readiest access to takeaways are nearly twice as likely to be obese compared with those least exposed to them.
Processed food is so tasty!
Junk food is addictive. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida found that our brains may react in the same way to junk food as they do to cocaine and heroin.
Whether processed food is sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, it is still addictive. Psychologist Susan E. Swithers of Purdue University points out that “exposure to hyper-sweetened foods and beverages at young ages may have effects on sweet preferences that persist into adulthood”. We are born with a sweet tooth and we learn to enjoy the more bitter taste of green vegetables as we grow up and begin to eat a more diverse diet. If children eat artificially sweetened foods, even those with reduced sugar, they will fail to develop a taste for those bitter but nutritious greens.
It’s often used as a reward or a treat – a family trip to McDonalds is a cheap treat (a hamburger only costs 89pence). After a hard day, a fresh doughnut from the local supermarket only costs 15pence – if you buy a pack of 5, and eating more than one is so tempting! And how many grand-parents like to treat their grandchildren with sweets or cakes or biscuits? Would a piece of fruit be appreciated as much?
Junk Food Advertisements
If advertisements for junk food failed to increase sales I’m sure that companies would stop advertising, or at least change their marketing strategy. Children are inundated with adverts for unhealthy food, and this puts pressure on families to make unhealthy choices.
In London, Sadiq Khan is planning to ban adverts on the tubes, buses and over ground stations that promote foods and drinks that are high in salt, fat and sugar.
Despite recommendations to the government, there are no plans that I am aware of to reduce the exposure to children of junk food adverts, either online or during family TV shows.
Eat or heat?
Austerity means that poorer families often have to choose whether to eat or heat! They don’t have the luxury of being able to cook nutritious meals. In my post last November I gave frightening statistics on the use of food banks, and unfortunately their use continues to rise.
Furthermore, there is a lot of hunger that goes under the radar, ranging from parents skipping meals, kids showing up to school hungry, and schools and families relying on low cost redistributed surplus food to make ends meet (Kartik Raj, a Human Rights Watch researcher).
Some people do not have a cooker – those living in hostels often have to share a microwave, and those that have a cooker may have had their gas or electricity cut off. Those sleeping rough have severely limited choices when it comes to eating.
How many New Year Resolutions to get fit/ do more exercise are broken each year? We all know that we need to exercise to be healthy. New research has found that not exercising is more damaging to your health than smoking. Times have changed and we are all living a much more sedentary lifestyles – we no longer hunt for food, we drive cars, and use labour saving devices both at home and at work. By consuming more calories and exercising less the obvious is happening – we are getting fatter. The government tells us this, in his speech on 5/11/18, the Health and Social Care Secretary clearly places the emphasis on personal responsibility – but what is the government doing to help? For those people affected by austerity, I would argue, very little. The onus appears to be upon the individual to get fit.
Where are the school playgrounds?
- Playgrounds are being sold thereby depriving children of exercise and sport. Between 2014 and 2016 a total of 214 playgrounds were closed by 65 local authorities across the UK (Helen Fields, Fields in Trust).
- According to Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Association of Play Industries, at least 234 playgrounds are to be shut down by the end of 2018.
Cash-strapped councils are selling our green spaces
- Councils are being forced to sell off parks to fund basic services.
- A Fields in Trust report has found that green spaces save the NHS at least £111 million every year – this figure is based on the number of GP visits they prevent.
- Research by the University of East Anglia university reveals that exposure to green space reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure.
Cost of getting fit
- An investigation by the BBC in 2015 revealed that the sports and leisure budgets of English councils were reduced by £42 million between 2010 and 2015 as part of the government’s austerity cuts.
- The impact of these austerity cuts is not evenly spread.For example, a report by The Guardian revealed that Rossendale in Lancashire experienced a 92.2% cut to its sport and recreation budget, while the borough of Haringey in north London was forced to make savings of 98.2%.
- The cost of getting fit is prohibitive for those people on the receiving end of the austerity cuts. At my local leisure centre it costs £20.95 for a family of two adults and two children to go swimming at the weekend. If you want your child to have swimming lessons, then this costs £18.99 for a pre-school child rising to £27.99 per month for an older child. However, in Prescot in the Northwest of England the leisure centre has been closed along with the public swimming pool.
- The sports sector is being asked to help resolve the obesity crisis while at the same time it is being subjected to austerity cuts.
In conclusion, let me state the obvious – it is not just the less well-off that are overweight or obese! There are a myriad of reasons why people put on weight. Similarly, junk food appeals to rich and poor children alike. And, the need to increase our activity levels is not restricted to the poor. My point is that obesity, in particular childhood obesity, is inextricably linked to austerity. Unfortunately many people associate obesity with laziness and overindulgence and this results in bullying at school and the work place, and ultimately leads to obese people less likely to be offered work or having lower paid jobs. So obesity keeps poor people poor – it’s like a cycle of poverty.
There is no doubt that austerity measures have hit the poorest the hardest, but the cuts have also taken working families below the poverty line. By 2020 local councils will have seen central government funding fall by 77%, and now people from all walks of life are being affected by the government’s austerity measures – rise in crime, NHS waiting lists, the sale of green spaces, the closure of libraries and other recreational facilities – the list goes on. In Rotherham, where Jamie Oliver set up a kitchen to teach people to cook, the Institute of Obesity had its grant withdrawn despite helping 7,000 patients losing 33.7 tonnes. Because sports and recreation is not a statutory service provided by local councils, its funding is savagely cut in an attempt to provide the statutory services.
The government has a plan to tackle child obesity and aims to significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity over the next ten years. It has already introduced the sugar tax and has a number of initiatives. Unfortunately it also focuses on personal responsibility. Simon Capewell, a professor of public health at Liverpool University points out that obese people do not “choose” to be obese – they simply “… have been overwhelmed by a toxic environment”.
Perhaps the government should halt its austerity measures; restrict junk food advertising online and during family televisions viewing; and provide and promote cheap (perhaps free) access to sporting activities.
I’d love to know your thoughts.