The cost of living is rising. The latest Consumer Price Index (a measure of inflation for a standard basket of goods) revealed that Australian grocery baskets are one of the biggest losses.
The latest data tells us that, on average, the cost of fruits and veggies in our shopping baskets is 6.7% more than this time last year. Some items rose much more. An option, for example, has risen from A$2.20 last year to A$3.70 this year. The cost of lettuce has become a norm during the current election campaign.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that fruit and vegetable prices have risen due to the impact of supply chains by the COVID pandemic (for example, border closures and loss of farm workers), floods and international conflict (increased fuel and transportation costs).
But prepared foods rose only 0.7%.
ABS notes that the cost of prepared foods has not increased much due to government-funded subsidies and voucher programs in NSW and Victoria.
The COVID pandemic has focused our attention on public health and government responses. But when it comes to building resilient diets that support affordable and healthy diets for all – one of the most important actions for public health – governments struggle to act.
Do healthy foods cost more than unhealthy options?
There is some debate about whether healthy foods cost more than unhealthy options.
The judgment usually boils down to how you measure what constitutes healthy food and who you talk to.
Our reviews constantly tell us one thing: healthy diets aren’t affordable for everyone. For people on low incomes, healthy diets make up about a quarter of their disposable income (the money that comes into their families after taxes).
One in four Australians say groceries are a major financial stressor.
Supermarkets discount packaged foods more frequently than fresh produce. AAP photo/Louis Asci
Read more: Video: Elections focus on the nerve of the pocket as living costs and interest rates soar
The price of brain food
We have monitored diet prices for many years and the effects of recent increases in fresh food will continue to be heartbreaking for ordinary people.
During our research, a single mom living in regional Victoria told us:
Another mother of two put the purchase of fresh fruit in context, saying:
Not all the nutritional knowledge in the world will help guide healthy choices if people cannot afford healthy food.
Supermarket specials can make unhealthy ultra-processed foods and drinks seem good value for money. We’ve previously shown that unhealthy choices offer twice as much as healthy alternatives.
This discount pattern can be particularly compelling for people on low incomes.
Finally, making food takes time. Buying prepared foods may save time – even though regular consumption can cost us our health.
The allure of fresh fruit is not a problem for low-income families. stock struggle
Read more: Supermarkets put fast food on specials twice as many healthy foods, and that’s a problem
Make healthy diets accessible to everyone
Our diet does not prioritize the health of people or the planet.
At a time when food bank queues are growing, discussions about repealing the GST exemption on fresh fruits and vegetables have been brewing.
As we face global food crises, our governments can plan ways to keep healthy diets affordable – for example, by increasing subsidies to keep prices for healthy foods low.
In the Northern Territory, the Indigenous-run Bagala Community Store has shown governments what is possible by setting healthy pricing standards for supermarkets. When more specials were placed on fruits and vegetables, consumption rose by 100%.
In New Zealand, the government provides healthy lunches for children at school to reduce food costs for families.
The price is half the food affordability issue only. As the cost of living rises, the distribution of our incomes diminishes.
Although there has been talk of raising the minimum wage, we are still far from addressing the root causes of health inequality as we approach this election.
Healthy diets will only be within the reach of all Australians if government income support is raised above the poverty line. Our government income support rates (provided by JobSeeker) are the second lowest in high income countries.
Food bank lines are growing. AAP Photo/James Ross
Research since the start of the pandemic has shown for the first time that JobSeeker has made healthy diets more affordable for people on low incomes. But the payments were later canceled and people returned to poverty. With housing costs on the rise, it’s surprising that anyone who relies on JobSeeker (AUD$345.50 per week for a single parent) can now afford to buy food, let alone find a healthy diet.
Read more: ‘Too many people, not enough food’ is not the cause of hunger and food insecurity
Governments and the food industry are not doing enough to make healthy diets accessible to all. Failure to respond to rising food prices, food insecurity and intergenerational poverty is a missed opportunity.
Sharp rises in food prices are stark evidence of just how vulnerable our diet is.
Meanwhile, our team at Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation will be monitoring food prices and the experiences people have with it. We will continue to advocate for appropriate policies that prioritize our right to healthy, affordable diets.
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