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Hardship amongst plenty

Published in The Food Magazine issue 83, 4th December 2008

Nina Oldfield undertook research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows more than 20% of people in the UK do not even have a minimally acceptable standard of living.

An extended version of this article is available in the Campaigns section under Good food for all.

The UK minimum wage for adults is £5.73 an hour – but no one could tell you why in any way that makes genuine sense. Government did not check to make sure people could live decently on it before it was set – and is now ignoring clear evidence that shows people cannot.

But new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation offers Britain, for the first time, a so-called Minimum Income Standard (MIS) for 11 types of family. Set to ensure people have at least a socially acceptable ‘minimum standard’ of living, defined as: more than just, food, clothes and shelter; it is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.

Each MIS has been hammered out through a process involving the pricing up of goods and services, in discussion with experts and 39 groups from a range of social backgrounds who defined just what is meant by a minimally acceptable standard of life. The focus has been on needs, not wants.

Minimum wage means hunger

In April 2008 a couple with two young children needed a disposable income of £370 per week (excluding rent/mortgage) to achieve a socially acceptable minimum standard of living. To achieve this living standard, this household with one earner working 37½ hours each week would need a gross wage of £13.76 per hour (more than twice the minimum wage).

Of this, £97.47 each week was needed to provide a basic nutritionally adequate diet. Yet, the average spending on food for this type of family on Income Support, according to the government’s survey on spending, is £67.58 each week. £30 per week less than what ordinary people say is needed to provide a healthy diet.

Those who took part in this study were particularly concerned about the longer-term consequences for children if the minimum income standard was not met.

“If the Chancellor’s not willing to invest in children now what does he expect children to achieve, because if you’re not giving them healthy meals they are going to get obese… he’s not putting the money into what children need for them to develop into people who are going to want to go to university…” (Woman, parent of primary school age children group)

Since the budgets were priced, food inflation has taken hold especially for staple foods such as potatoes, cereal, bread and fresh meat. By August 2008, the couple with two children would need to spend £103.87 each week to buy the same basket of food (£6.40 more than in April 2008). If food prices continue to rise at this rate we could be seeing an unprecedented increase of more than £19 by April 2009 for this particular basket of food. 

The food standard

The method of working out the food component of the budget combined the views of experts whose aims were to promote a healthy and balanced diet, with those of ordinary people who were best placed to agree a diet that is reasonably healthy, practical in terms of lifestyle, realistic in terms of preferences and treats and basic in terms of cost.

All foods consumed for one week were included in the assessment of nutritional adequacy, that is, food and snacks eaten at home, outside the home and any alcohol included in the diet. A common eating structure for weekend or weekdays including snacking, eating out, takeaway meals; catering for visitors; the higher costs of holiday food and festive spending was agreed. If social eating and drinking was incurred an agreement was sought on the frequency this took place. Layers of detail such as: standard portion sizes, food weights, volume and quantities of drinks, snacks and sweets were added. Recipe ingredients and cooking methods were identified and described.

The nutritionist, who was advisor to the research, suggested only essential adjustments to the menus to compensate for readings outside the acceptable margins of nutritional adequacy. The most common change suggested by the expert was to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables to 400g per day where low. Some menus needed no changes, others minor changes.

So what did people think?

All groups agreed a ‘minimum’ food budget did not mean unhealthy diets or insufficiency or even eating different foods to what is common for particular types of households.
Many participants, male and female, and of all ages, referred to the ‘five-a-day’ campaign and the importance of creating a healthy diet and that this sometimes would come at an additional cost. For example, “She should not be in position where she is forced to buy things that are not healthy because they are cheaper.” (Partnered mothers)

Some participants thought additional costs reflected high quality produce. For example, “And when you buy again the basic range of stuff, like you were saying frozen chickens, they are like £2… I mean there is no taste. I know if you buy organic chicken it tastes absolutely fantastic. You know there is a huge difference (in cost and taste). And if we had the choice we wouldn’t be buying the frozen chicken, we would be buying the one that has got taste, that is probably not pumped full of water and those sorts of things.” (Lone parent) 

In general the groups agreed ‘minimum’ could mean lower prices, perhaps achieved through a combination of ‘basic’ or ‘no-frills’ cost items for some foods and a little higher spend for important foods such as meat or vegetables. Although some thought costs might be higher for people with specific dietary requirements (vegetarian or food intolerance) they did not think it necessary to build in these additional costs as standard.

Brown bread was thought to be more expensive than white, and although it was acknowledged to be the healthier choice participants mostly said their children preferred white bread. Most groups therefore decided on a compromise and specified Hovis ‘Best of Both’ would be acceptable to the majority of people. All groups agreed that some provision for alcohol should be included, but not all agreed consuming alcohol outside the home was necessary.

Parents of school children talked about lunch boxes; what they should include and the importance of children not being seen to be different by their peers. Packed lunches were seen as being cheaper to provide than buying school meals. The common theme was sandwiches, crisps or a small chocolate bar and a piece of fruit. Sandwich filling suggestions were jam, peanut butter and ham or cheese with salad.

“It’s best not to have fancy sandwich fillings because the other kids laugh. If you have anything unusual for your packed lunch the other kids kill themselves laughing.” (Parent of primary school child)

Secondary school parents said it was common for children to reject what they saw as being ‘budget’ buy or bargain food items. As one mother put it, “If I buy Sainsbury’s basic crisps she says – I am not taking them to school the kids will laugh at me. It is true! I have seen kids dump crisps in the bin on the way to school so they will not be seen eating them.” (Secondary school parent)

Pricing the basket

A shopping list was produced from the basket of food, which stipulated whole loaves of bread and suitable packet sizes for family size. Food items and alcohol consumed in the home were priced in a local branch of a well-known supermarket.

As some groups had specified branded items, the final prices included a mixture of value items, own brands and named brands. Part packets not used during the week and not suitable to be saved for later use were treated as waste. The cost of social eating or drinking outside the home was collected from external catering sources (cafés, restaurants or pubs).

The cost of a basic but nutritionally adequate diet

Table One shows the total cost of providing each family with a minimum, socially acceptable and healthy diet each week. The types of family, which range from pensioners to couples with four children, represent 79% of all single unit households in the UK. Food described as the ‘extra cost of food eaten outside the home’ includes food purchased as takeaways and meals in restaurants, pubs or cafés. Small amounts shown in the extra costs of food or drink outside the home may indicate that this happens infrequently, for example once per month rather than weekly.

Basket of food

A single week’s menu for a couple with two children in pre and primary school is produced in full at and should dispel any idea that the budgets were produced to allow anything that could be called excess. The menu includes just four cans of beer and one bottle of wine – well below safe drinking recommendations, especially as the amount allows for company. There are no ready meals unless you include small amounts of tinned fruit soup or ravioli, frozen veg, sandwich meats or fish fingers. Sweets are also at a minimum.


Compared to actual spending on food, in most cases the MIS is more, and at times substantially more, than actual spending on food for those people who have incomes made up of Income Support/Pension Credit and, to a lesser extent, those households living in social housing. It seems that where hardship occurs food is likely to be subject to cutbacks that may well effect the nutritional intake and so the future health of families at the lowest income levels.

MIS is not a perfect tool for policy makers. It cannot accommodate the huge range of human diversity in needs and circumstances nor produce a single figure to suit all needs. The end of this initial research project represents the mere beginning. The task is now to ensure its continuing relevance by periodic uprating of prices and reviewing trends over time.

Table 1: The cost of weekly food baskets for 11 types of families.

A minimum income standard for Britain: what people think (Bradshaw et al. 2008) Published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Nina Oldfield was a research consultant on the above project.

An extended version of this article is available in the Campaigns section under Good food for all.