A recent study suggests that low-income parents in England buy unhealthy food based not only on its availability, price and marketing, but also on the non-food aspects of well-being that they cannot provide for their families.

A study suggests that a key reason why low-income parents buy unhealthy food for their families is to compensate for other activities that support social welfare but which they cannot afford. The study from the Center for Food Policy in the City, University of London focuses on the food buying habits of low-income parents in England.

It looked at how the eating practices of these families may be influenced by their ‘food environment’, i.e. where people can buy and eat food outside the home, and the advertising and promotions they encounter, but also wider socioeconomic factors have lives, which may affect their ability to make decisions, indicates Eurek Alert.

The findings support the well-established view that a food environment where unhealthy foods are ubiquitous, cheap and heavily marketed leads parents to feed their families junk food. However, it is further suggested that when parents cannot afford social activities with their children they are also motivated to compensate with unhealthy ‘treats’.

Unhealthy “treats”.

Examples of such routines identified in the study include family visits to fast food outlets, kebab shop or restaurants or even home delivery, snacking in front of a movie or board game.

The study involved low-income parents as participants (60 in number), recruited equally from disadvantaged neighborhoods in three regions of England. The participants were over 18 years of age, parents of children in school or kindergarten and those who carried out the supply in the family. All participants participated in semi-structured interviews regarding family food purchasing, preparation and consumption practices and the role of different family members, including children, in implementing these practices.

Fifty-eight participants took part in an exercise where they took pictures of things that were harder or easier for them to buy, or foods they wanted for their families. Twenty-two of the participants also took part in a shop-along interview, where they guided the researcher interviewer around the shops of their choice.

What do the study authors recommend?

The data collected from these sources were structured in a thematic analysis illustrating the interpretation of what was discovered, summarized as follows:

  • low-income families use many tools to navigate food environments and feed families within budget;
  • food environments push families toward unhealthy foods but support other aspects of well-being;
  • food practices shape how families engage in food environments;
  • interventions in the food environment must also address the wider aspects of people’s lives.

Based on the findings, the study authors’ recommendations include removing unhealthy food promotions and outlets from the food environment while replacing them with healthier promotions and outlets to preserve the social well-being opportunities they provide families.

Other recommendations include increasing the number of affordable family activities available in disadvantaged local communities; make existing activities more accessible, such as through the availability of discounts; and addressing the wider social need to lift families out of financial insecurity, such as through wider benefit schemes, wage policies and insecure jobs.

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