Cost of living crisis causes ‘dignity gap’ for Scotland’s poorest families | Scotland

The first study to use real shopping lists to track the impact of the cost of living crisis on family budgets in Scotland has uncovered a “dignity gap” between the cheapest products and what families actually want to eat.

Nourish Scotland’s report, which launches on Tuesday, tracks the affordability and accessibility of a weekly shop for different-sized families who are at highest risk of food insecurity, including a single-parent family and a larger family unit with three children.

Dr Chelsea Marshall, the report author, said: “We wanted to measure the cost of a diet that balanced people’s healthy aspirations with enjoyment and the realities of everyday life.”

Researchers highlight a significant difference between the cost of selecting only the cheapest food and drink available and the items the advisers thought the case study families would find acceptable – what it describes as the “dignity gap”, which increases the cost of a weekly shop by 34%.

Volunteer community advisers constructed detailed meal plans that contain all the food and drink the case study family would require in a typical week, taking into account the rhythms and routines of family life, including holidays and special occasions such as birthdays.

Michelle Martin, a working lone parent from Edinburgh who advised on one of the meal plans, said: “If you take your kids to soft play, you don’t want to be that parent that says, ‘No, we’re not buying anything’. You want to be able to treat their friends to some pizza, too.”

The menu plans reflect the routine micro-decisions that parents like her face. “My children love Heinz beans, and cheap unbranded beans taste completely different. Some swaps work OK, like Aldo tortilla chips for Doritos if you’re making nachos, but the report is trying to reflect how you don’t want to feel that beggars can’t be choosers. But prices are so high that Heinz beans are a luxury.”

Tracking the cost of these shopping lists between December 2021 and December 2022, the report found an increase of 16.5% for the smaller families and 13.5% for the large families. While discretionary items such as sweets and crisps increased by 9% during this time period, fruit and vegetables had gone up an average of 20% and dairy items such as milk, cheese and yoghurt by 29%.

Having estimated the case study families’ household incomes, the shopping lists would currently cost between 25% and 37% of this, after housing costs.

There were also notable differences in the price of fruit and vegetables across Scotland, compounded in rural areas by a lack of affordable public transport.

While the report found that low-income families valued and prioritised sharing meals together, decisions about meal preparation were influenced more by busy schedules – such as the need to balance preparing a pot of soup from scratch at the weekend with an easy pasta dish after collecting children from after-school sports practice – rather than lack of cooking skills.

The challenges of cooking for children with different preferences are also explored. As another adviser, Victoria, from East Lothian, said: “It’s all very well looking at the Eatwell guidelines [from Food Standards Scotland] but how do you translate that into meals that your kids will actually eat? We also discussed how every week is not the same: sometimes you’ve not got the energy to cook from scratch, or you may have a birthday that you want to celebrate.”

More broadly, the report takes on what “the right to food” looks like in the midst of the economic crisis – having passed the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act last year, the Holyrood government has said it plans to include the right to food in its human rights bill, expected to be published for consultation in the coming months.

Nourish Scotland’s director, Pete Ritchie, said: “This project is about making the right to food real – something you can see, taste and measure. We’ve asked people to describe a good enough way of doing food in a typical 21st-century Scottish family – and we’ve looked at what that costs in the current crisis. Until each and every household can afford and access good enough food, we’ve got more work to do on achieving the right to food in Scotland.”

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