The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
As part of my involvement in the UN Food Systems Summit (I am chairing a subgroup of Action Track 1), I’ve been wrestling with the issue of affordability. The Action Tracks are tasked with coming up with “game-changing” solutions. In this case, it’s about how to make nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and legumes more affordable, while making refined starchy foods, cheap fried foods, pre-packaged “ultra-processed” snacks and sugary drinks less so. It’s a challenge we are tasked with addressing for the billions of people around the world living life on a low income.
There are different schools of thought here. One says: make healthy foods cheaper. Indeed, the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition estimated that a healthy diet costs five times more than a diet dominated by starchy staples. Solutions proposed include supply chain efficiencies, food subsidies, and, to make the unhealthy foods more expensive, taxes.
Another says: tackle poverty. There is only so much you can do, the argument goes, to lower food prices; and besides, downward pressures on prices makes it even tougher for producers and suppliers of nutritious foods to survive. Moreover, if the “true costs” of food were taken into account (incorporating the environmental costs of production, for example), food would need to be more expensive, not cheaper. The real problem is poverty. Solutions proffered here relate to wages, equality in income distribution (including within the food system), gender issues, and social protection programmes.
Others argue that affordability is only a small piece of the puzzle. There are easily affordable nutritious foods out there – it's just that considerations of taste, convenience, knowledge, status and identity drive people towards less healthy alternatives. Suggested solutions include making nutritious foods more palatable and easier to prepare, food literacy programmes and campaigns to change behaviour. Others point out that physical access is still a real challenge in some places, and requires targeted solutions.
Another perspective is that transforming any the above is just too hard. People eat what they eat, and history tells us that tackling poverty or prices is not an easy thing to do. So, in the meantime, let fortification and reformulation do the job so we don’t have to alter income, prices or behaviour.
What’s it to be, then? What’s really going to make a difference? Which camp is right? My reading of the available evidence (cutting across a wide range of countries) is that the challenges faced by people experienced in their real-life contexts are overlapping and multiple.
The first challenge is that while low-income households have significant skills in managing their food budgets, low levels of income, alongside variability and unpredictability, shape buying practices. Rational management of scarce food budgets leads to a focus on foods that offer satiety (“it fills them up”), lower-cost substitutes (e.g. cheaper meats), seeking out price deals (e.g. month-end price cutting), and prioritising foods that won’t go to waste.
The second is that the nutritious foods people want to eat (and their children to eat) are often higher priced than less nutritious alternatives. In some places (e.g. more rural) and times (e.g. because of seasonality), they are also not physically accessible. The specific foods that populations find appealing but unaffordable varies between populations and context – could be raspberries, groundnuts, milk etc. Lack of assets to reduce waste (e.g. fridges), and gender inequality (e.g. inadequate decision-making powers), make these foods appear even more unaffordable.
Thirdly, some nutritious foods are available at low prices but offer low perceived value. Cowpea, soya and millets are highly nutritious and cheap yet typically consumed less than refined staples. Certain vegetables, like cabbage and carrots in certain contexts, or indigenous or wild vegetables in others, may be affordable but likewise lack acceptability and appeal. Reasons are low convenience (i.e. they take time, energy and skill to prepare in the context of women's time burdens); concern about wastage (if family members don’t like them); and perception of low quality, palatability or status (they’re “poor people’s food” or “food for the animals”).
Fourthly, fried foods prepared in and out of home, sugar, and “ultra-processed” sugary drinks and snacks aren’t only widely accessible: they’re also perceived as affordable and appealing. These foods are perceived variously as safe, aspirational, convenient and (for some foods at least) highly satiating. Sharing easy-to-like foods is also a source of social pleasure among friends and harmony in families. Thus people, including adolescents, are willing to pay for them, even when more expensive than nutritious alternatives. Sugar is notable for being widely accessible and for its ability to make inexpensive foods (e.g. tea, porridge) more palatable and appealing, especially for young children.
The fifth major challenge is the perception that “healthy foods” are unaffordable, even when they’re no more expensive than alternatives. People who believe healthy foods are more costly, or that good nutrition is a luxury only for the wealthy, tend to buy less.
All told, the evidence suggests that this is a multi-dimensional issue. The problem isn’t reducible to any single story. There is no doubt that poverty plays a major role in shaping what people eat; tackling income inequality has to be a core part of the solution. At the same time, increasing income to the degree possible through intervention won’t alone solve the problem. Neither will lowering prices alone be a magic bullet. Over the short-term, efforts to lower prices of the nutritious foods people already find acceptable and appealing appear to have the greatest chance of success. Other situations demand a focus on enhancing the acceptability of existing nutritious foods already affordable, taking into account womens' burdens at home and work. Enhancing people’s perception that nutritious foods offer good value relative to others – nutritional bang for the buck – could also work for some foods in some contexts, as could enhancing physical access. Coming down hard on the processes that make unhealthy foods aspirational, and building in the “true” costs of their public burden into their prices could also be part of the picture.
What emerges here is the need to layer up solutions, each one catering to a different aspect of the problem, tailored to fit context, between them collectively addressing the problem as it is actually experienced in the reality of people’s lives.
Perhaps the first game-changer we need, then, is a narrative shift. A shift away from the idea that one approach is “right” and others “wrong”; a shift away from spending time arguing a particular position. And instead, spending time figuring out how all the different solutions fit together to change the game for the people who experience the challenges. It’s not that “anything goes,” of course, but recognising there is no one single story, no one way to tackle the problem, and that understanding it from the perspective of the people who experience it is a good way to start.
This is not just relevant to affordability, but to the food world in general. Too often we see experts and activists standing in different camps, lobbing solutions at each other. My solution is better than yours. We have the truth, the evidence, and you don’t... If there is to be a more fundamental shift in the current way of doing and thinking about food systems – the formal definition of a game-changer – we might begin by changing the way we execute our own business. We don’t have to agree upon every proposed solution. But by asking the right questions, and showing patience in listening to the answers, we might at least begin to understand where each piece fits in the jigsaw of solutions.
With credit to Stella Nordhagen for her research support on Action Track 1 and her contributions. The views in the blog are also inspired by the emerging findings of projects in South Africa and the UK involving engaging with populations living life on a low income.