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What should we spend on food?

In this article, Ped Asgarian, our Managing Director, investigates just how much people are spending on food, and whether it adds up...
How much do you spend on food per week? Maybe, like me, you’ve taken the time to dissect what you spend your earnings on during lockdown.

With shops only just reopening, we’ve not been able to spend money like we used to and that certainly has presented the opportunity for many to reassess lifestyles and habits.

In this country we spend (on average) a meagre 8.9% of our disposable income on food. To put this in perspective, many of our European neighbours spend upwards of 11%, and if you go back to the 1950s we were spending over 30% on food.

Food spend comparison chart 

Looking at this comparison immediately raises the question: why do we spend so little on food relative to the rest of Europe? This is amplified by differences in the cost of food, in particular, the cost of fruit and veg. The increased spend on food is not only restricted to countries where disposable income or food costs are higher: in Italy they earn 20% less than the UK but spend 28% more on food, even though the cost of food is 20% more!

The food system in the UK is becoming more akin to America, where they spend only 6% of disposable income on food! The recent RSA paper, Our Future in the Land, reported that the UK ranked as one of the worst for food poverty amongst the developed world, and this can be linked into our drive for cheaper food and an unwillingness to spend more.

Clearly, we do not have the same food culture we once did, and we have fallen behind our closest neighbours. Differences between the UK now and back in the 1950s is very stark when it comes to disposable income. We now spend far, far less on food (about a quarter of what we once spent) but more on travel, housing (driven by high rents and land prices - another topic for another day) and leisure and services. Significantly, that latter category has more than doubled as our lifestyles have changed. It is worth noting that this is a trend that not only occurs in the UK, but throughout the rest of Europe and the developed world.

Inflation of food prices has experienced very slow growth relative to both the cost of production and other commodities. So is this lower spend on food a reflection of food becoming cheaper (driven by supermarkets and intensified farming) or is food now cheaper because we are willing to spend less on food and more on other aspects of our lives? I expect there is an aspect of chicken and egg to this, but I think it is also a reflection of our changing food culture. Do we actually get bang for our buck when we spend more money on take-away food or ready meals versus buying and preparing raw ingredients? Are we really understanding the true cost of the food we buy?

Lockdown has forced many people to begin cooking three square meals a day. There are no more meal deals from the local shop when at work, or kebabs on the way home from the pub. In my household, we’ve worked out that spending approximately £70-£80 for two adults per week has allowed us to eat healthily, locally and sustainably. That’s no more than £5.70 per person, per day, or £1.90 per meal. Much cheaper and healthier than fish and chips, pizza or an Indian take-away!

As consumers, investing money into our food and farming system can have dramatic impacts: socially, economically and environmentally. This is something we’ve explored at The Farm in other, earlier articles. I think we should all spend more time understanding what we pay and what we are willing to pay to eat properly. The COVID-19 pandemic, while taking so many things away from us, has given us the opportunity to reassess and improve much of what we do on a daily basis. We would be foolish to ignore it.

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