Recession and food inequality

Households cut back food spending during the recession, according to research presented today. The findings from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) were discussed at a workshop on income inequality during austerity.

Picture credit: Matt Kemberling

The recession led to reductions in real income for many households. Concurrently food prices rose starkly, reversing a long-run trend towards cheaper food.

Researchers at the IFS showed that households responded to the worsening economic climate by cutting back their food spend. This is something that did not happen in previous recessions. Households both cut back the number of calories that they bought and switched to cheaper calories.

The researchers used detailed data from Kantar Worldpanel, which contains information on all of the food and drink purchases made and brought into the home by a representative sample of British households. The data allowed the researchers to track households through time and analyse changes in their food purchasing behaviour.

On average, households reduced the number of calories they purchased between 2005-2007 and 2010-2012 by one per cent. At the same time households changed their behaviour in ways that lowered their spend per calorie. Once common factors such as rising food prices were stripped out, changes in household behaviour helped lower spend per calorie by around three per cent.

Part of the reason for this was that households made more intensive use of sales, which, all else equal, translated into lower per calorie grocery spend. However, households also adjusted the nutritional characteristics of their shopping basket in such a way as to reduce their spend per calorie, and they also switched towards buying more calories from relatively cheap generic (or own brand) products.

Some of the changes in the nutritional content of grocery purchases would have acted to improve nutritional quality – for example. a switch away from saturated fat and alcohol – while others would have lowered nutritional quality – for example a switch away from protein and vegetables. Using an overall measure of diet known as the Healthy Eating Index, the researchers showed that there were only modest changes in the overall nutritional quality of calorie purchases.

The researchers concluded that households had been relatively successful at mitigating the impact of the recent economic turbulence on the nutritional quality of grocery purchases.

Martin O’Connell presented findings from his joint work with Rachel Griffith and Kate Smith “Shopping around? How households adjusted food spending over the Great Recession” today (September 15) at a workshop on understanding changes in income inequality in the austerity period, hosted by the Misoc ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change and Euromod at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, based at the University of Essex.

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