Food poverty and obesity are two hard hitting issues that have long been a prominent part of the UK. It is important that we recognise and understand that the two are very much interrelated if we are to correctly address them.

The issue of food poverty

With ever-growing socio-economic disparities in the UK, more than 1 in 5 of the population live below the poverty line meaning 14.3 million people struggle daily due to their financial circumstances. Peoples diets tend to take a massive hit as a direct result of this, leaving at least four million people in the UK struggling with food poverty. Food poverty or food insecurity occurs when people are unable to access enough safe and nutritious food necessary to meet the requirements needed to live a healthy life.

The issue of obesity

With obesity reaching epidemic status in the UK it is no surprise that it is the cause for nearly one in ten deaths. Treatment of obesity is costing the UK upward of 5.1 billion pounds a year, more than which is spent on our judicial system, fire services and police combined.

But how are the two related? To put it simply the poorer people are the worse their diet tends to be, this results in an increase in health-related issues a person may face. Unfortunately, a healthy diet and subsequently a healthy life seems to currently be a privilege reserved for the rich.

What is a healthy diet? Why don’t we all have access to it?

The UK government has provided us with the “Eatwell Guide” which shows us what type of foods to eat and the quantities for a healthy balanced diet. The problem is that it works based on being able to afford a healthy diet something most households in the UK today cannot do.

Not only are people living in poverty restricted in terms of how much money they have but they are also limited in terms of what their money can buy. The affordability of a healthy diet is becoming an ideal well out of reach for many, with the recommended foods in the “Eatwell Guide” constantly rising in price. Research has shown that the healthy foods recommended by the “Eatwell Guide” cost on average almost three times more per calorie than the unhealthy foods it warns us to avoid. It’s no wonder that so many people turn to these unhealthy calorie dense foods.

The reality is that unhealthy food is cheap and plentiful, making it useful in times of financial hardship. When your budget is tight and you have mouths to feed, choosing between a pack of 3 courgettes costing £1.20 or 5 packs of noodles at 22p each, it is highly probable that you’re walking straight past the vegetables. People are doing what they can to feed themselves and their families even if it means prioritising quantity over nutritional value.

The governments “Eatwell Guide” is simply an unhelpful reminder that people living below the food poverty line should “eat less often and in small amounts” the only food they can afford. Ironically, the ill-advised food is both the saviour from short term starvation and the executioner as it worsens one’s life expectancy in the long term.

Misconceptions regarding obesity

There are a plethora of factors that lead to the emergence of obesity and often we jump to the conclusion that it is due to overindulgence and/or a lack of physical activity. We need to understand however that this isn’t always the case. Obesity as a result of food poverty is due to a person’s lack of access to a healthy diet, obesity it’s not always a lifestyle choice. According to Oxfam report on food poverty, obesity is a phenomenon is best understood as modern malnutrition.

For so long we have associated malnutrition with adverts of appeal for starving children in developing countries. We’ve been met with heart-wrenching imagery of gaunt children and the stories of their food struggles. We do not, however, see appeals flooding our TV for obese children or adults suffering from excruciating food poverty in the UK. Why? Because we are failing to see the severity of the issue and the connection between the two.

Tackling the issues

Break the attitude that obesity is a product of poor lifestyle choices. This attitude is ignorant and unhelpful, by addressing obesity this way we encourage the understanding that for those living in food poverty that there is a choice. For someone to choose between eating a nutritionally dense pack of cheap noodles or to go hungry is no choice at all. Situations like this push person towards obesity, they force their hand this is not a choice. These instances are founded upon a lack of justice and are a mockery to a person’s human rights. The fact that a choice of a healthy diet is a privilege given only to those better off is sickening and more needs to be done to address this issue. Everyone should have a right to a healthy life and access to the means necessary to attain it. 

We need to stop focusing so heavily on reactive solutions. Far too often have we exhausted the use of food banks and care packages to help provide a better diet for those struggling with food poverty. We need to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. The government needs to give greater attention to food poverty and the reason people are in it. A conversation needs to be started regarding preventive measures, not just reactive solutions.

We must also address the increasing difference in price-margin between healthy and unhealthy food. Social inequality will continue to worsen and the health of those from low-income backgrounds will continue to deteriorate. The Food Foundation recognises that for a healthy life to be fulfilled we must all have access to an affordable healthy diet until then food insecurity will continue to grow and so will levels of obesity in low-income households.