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cost of living (wallet and rise)

The rising cost of food: Not just money, but mental health too

21 Oct 2013 | Ade Kearns and Angela Curl

Food prices are rising quicker than wages, and the use of food banks is increasing; this much we know from official statistics, but what about the hidden cost of rising prices to the mental health of those struggling on low incomes? 

Research just released from the GoWell Programme in Glasgow shows a link between higher levels of financial stress and declining mental health and wellbeing for people living in deprived communities.

Over the past few weeks, figures released from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) – the basket of goods by which inflation is measured – rose by 2.7% over the past year to September 2013. But within this, the cost of food rose by more than average, at 4.8% per annum. Some of the highest price rises were for the kinds of foods that are recommended for our health: the price of fruit went up 11.3% over the past year, vegetables by 6.9% and fish by 5.2%. 

In June this year it was reported that whilst food prices were rising by more than 4%, average wages were rising by only 1%, so real incomes are falling and people are spending more of their incomes on basic items. Over the past five years, the biggest contributors to consumer inflation have been food prices, housing and utility bills, and transport costs –the kind of things we cannot easily avoid having to pay for.

Food banks

Last week we heard about one of the consequences of these trends in prices and wages at the lower end of the income scale: the expansion of food banks in the UK. Food banks are a means of redistributing food donated by the public, often collected in the street or at supermarkets, to those in need. The Trussell Trust is the largest network of food banks in the UK, issuing food boxes to people who are given food vouchers by doctors, social workers and other professionals. 

The Trust has around 400 food banks across the UK, including 42 in Scotland and 5 in the Greater Glasgow area where we are doing our research. They report that the number of food bank users has increased more than five-fold over the past year. The fact that those users include people in work as well as others whose benefit levels have changed shows how the effects of the economic downturn and welfare reforms can be seen in an increasing reliance upon support from charities.

The hidden effects of poverty

But there are also more hidden effects of struggling to make ends meet, as shown in a new report from our study of deprived communities in Glasgow: Financial Stress and Mental Wellbeing in an Age of Austerity. By interviewing several thousand low-income householders over the period 2006 to 2011, we were able to see how their experience of financial stress has changed from before to after the recession, and into the period of austerity measures from 2010 onwards. For example, we found that over the period of recession and austerity, 2008-2011, one in seven people (15%) reported more difficulty paying for food (more people also reported increased difficulties with fuel bills and council tax).  

What is more, around a fifth of those people who were having more difficulty affording basic household budget items such as food also reported that they were suffering a long-term mental health problem (lasting more than a year) such as stress, anxiety or depression that they had not reported earlier in the study; and a fifth also said that they had gone to their doctor for a mental health reason, where they had not done so previously.

When we measured people’s mental health using standard scales based on the survey responses, we also found that for those people reporting increased difficulty paying day to day living costs, their mental health scores declined compared to the pre-recession period, but this was not the case for those whose level of financial stress had not changed or improved over time. 

Looking to the future

So financial stress has consequences for people’s mental health and this in turn can add to demands on the health service. These findings add to the evidence about the effects of the economic downturn, austerity and welfare reforms upon the most vulnerable and marginal in our society.

We will be continuing to monitor the impacts of financial stress upon our study communities over the period 2011 to 2015, when some of the biggest impacts of welfare reform will be felt. We will also be looking beyond mental health and wellbeing to see how financial stress may show up in several other ways:  in household relationships and decisions about who lives where and with whom; in health behaviours such as diet, drinking and smoking; and in the levels of use (or not) of local amenities and services, including food banks.

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