Parents adopt unhealthy food routines for family wellbeing in place of unaffordable activities

New study study suggests a key reason parents on a low-income buy unhealthy foods for their families is to compensate for non-food related activities which support social wellbeing, but that they are unable to afford.

The study from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London sheds light on the food buying habits of low-income parents across England. It looked at how these families’ food practices may be influenced by their ‘food environment’, i.e. where people can buy and eat food outside of the home, as well as advertising and promotions they come across, but also the wider socioeconomic factors in their lives that may be affecting their decision making.

The findings support the well-established view that a food environment where unhealthy foods are ubiquitous, cheap and heavily marketed, drives parents to feed their families on them. However, they further suggest that when parents are unable to afford social activities with their children, like visiting a ‘soft play’ centre or holidays even a short distance away, they are additionally driven to compensate with family ‘treats’ taking the form of unhealthy food routines.

Examples of such routines identified in the study include family visits to fast-food outlets like the local ‘chippy’ (fish and chips shop), kebab shop, or (famously branded) burger restaurant, or even food related events at home such as family snacks time in front of a movie or board game.

The study involved 60 parents on low incomes as participants, recruited equally from deprived neighbourhoods across three regions of England: Great Yarmouth, Stoke-on-Trent and the London Borough of Lewisham. Participants were aged over 18, a parent of a child in school of nursey and the primary shopper in the family. Reflecting the highly gendered nature of food work, 56 participants were women.

All participants took part in semi-structured interviews relating to practices of purchasing, preparing and consuming foods in the family, and the roles of different family members, including children, in enacting those practices. Fifty-eight of the participants took part in a photo elicitation exercise over a week where they took photos of things that made it harder or easier for them to buy the food they wanted for their families. Twenty-two of the participants also took part in a ‘shop-along’ interview where they guided the interviewing researcher around the shops of their choice, and what they bought.

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