The reality of recession eating

by sophie on April 16, 2009 · 6 comments

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The last few months have seen endless talk about what will happen to our diets in the recession and the potential impact this will have on health. There is a worry that people will turn to unhealthy processed foods which are often (perceived as) cheaper to buy, increasing intakes of empty calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt.

Last year most of these kinds of articles were pure conjecture, a few weeks ago saw the release of some interesting real figures from the British Retail Consortium.  The report showed that UK spending on food in January was actually up 5.1% compared with January 2008, while spending fell in all other areas of retail including clothes, homewares, health and beauty all fell. 

Increased prices account for some of this increased spending but the rise has also been fuelled by the trend for staying in, now the new going out.  There were other notable trends in food purchases besides eating in, some of which are healthier than others:

  • Totally unsurprisingly, comfort food has become popular (maybe also have stimulated by an unusually cold, snowy Winter).
  • Sales of cheaper cuts of meat such as casserole meats and sausages have increased.
  • Seasonal produce is “in”, particularly root vegetables such as parsnips and carrots, but also the much maligned brussels sprout.
  • Expensive, imported tropical fruit is decreasing in popularity.  
  • Home baking is catching on in a big way, and with it the potential to increase sugar, fat and energy intakes.
  • Happily the recession is not stopping people from shopping ethically, with Fairtrade and Higher Welfare meat sales both keeping their ground

The figures suggest that the recession isn’t too heavily affecting the quality of food and drink people are enjoying at home, while spending in other areas have taken a bit of a bashing. Obviously this wont be true for everybody and some families will have been financially much harder hit and may have had to change their food spending considerably.   But overall, for a country so often lambasted for the low priority we give to food (both financially and in other ways) I think these findings are great news indeed  But there are a few things in this list that aren’t necessarily all that healthy but that could become healthy with a bit of thought. Some thoughts on making the most of your diet in a recession are on the way in my next post.


Jillian April 16, 2009 at 21:13

Our family’s budget is fairly bare-bones. However, up until fairly recently we have been able to afford to eat nearly 100% organic foods. Now, due to foreseen but unable to be helped circumstances, we’re eating, maybe 30% organic. We buy nearly zero pre-packaged foods, but still, we can’t afford the (what seems like) every-increasing organic prices.
So, we’re really looking forward to getting back to shopping at our local farmers’ market and hopefully to starting some container gardening soon.

Arwen from Hoglet K April 17, 2009 at 00:41

It’s an interesting pattern. I guess from an environmental perspective the best news is the popularity of seasonal produce and the reduction in imported fruit. I wonder whether the baking is replacing something people ate out?

kathryn April 18, 2009 at 06:10

Interesting patterns Sophie. I haven’t seen many figures on the situation over here, except that overall spending on food has increased.
I can quite understand why people would be turning away from those expensive tropical fruits, and also turning to cheaper cuts of meat. But I find the turn to home baking interesting. Basic biscuits and cakes from the supermarket are still pretty cheap. I’m wondering if people are looking for a better product, something they would have previously bought at a cafe or quality bakery? Don’t know.
Home baking does have the *potential* to be better – as you’ve discussed before. But of course doesn’t necessarily translate!

Sophie April 18, 2009 at 14:08

Jillian – thanks for commenting. It’s lovely to be able to buy organic but as you say the prices are often steep in comparison. Does your local farmers market tend to be cheaper than specifically organic produce? We’ve noticed the price of organic fruit and veg rather more recently and like you we’ve started to make plans to grow some of our own this year.
Arwen & Kathryn – it would be very interesting to know what is driving the baking increase. Baked goods are a food group that tends to be available very cheaply (using low quality ingredients) so I suspect the drive isn’t purely financial. People are always making the argument that you can buy cakes and biscuits cheaper than fresh veggies and sadly this is true. My hunch is that people are doing it as a way to spend time at home and make themselves a nice treat at the same time. But maybe there is a health/quality element to it also?

Jillian April 18, 2009 at 23:35

Hi Sophie,
The local farmers’ market, if nothing else, *seems* to be cheaper than the organic food I could buy at the nearest grocery store. So, while I still might not be able to buy organic, at least I’ll be able to buy locally.
Today I got the itch to get my container gardening started. Then I threw out my back. Now I can’t do much of anything. Ah well… maybe next week.

Lucy April 19, 2009 at 00:10

I wonder if the baking bug has something to do with cosy notions of recession-style ‘Grandmother’ cooking? White flour, butter, sugar…these are cheap things that fill you up.
Must say the markets down here are brimming and bustling and prices haven’t changed. Yet. As you eloquently say, Sophie, Staying In is the new Going Out!

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