Parents using junk food to make up for not being able to afford holidays and days out, research finds
Cash-strapped families are buying unhealthy food for their children to compensate for being unable to afford social activities that boost wellbeing, new research suggests.
The study by the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, showed low-income parents turned to treats – including fast food and “inexpensive snacks” such as biscuits, cakes or ice cream – to make up for the fact they could not pay for activities including holidays, days out and visits to soft play centres.
Participants said special offers influenced what food they bought – facilitating “the purchase of small pleasures that might not have otherwise been enjoyed within monotonous food routines”.
The study highlights the increasing pressure the cost of living crisis is putting on families during the school holidays.
Some 60 parents from deprived neighbourhoods in Great Yarmouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Lewisham in south-east London took part in the study.
Almost all of the participants – 56 out of 60 – were women. They were all aged over 18, a parent of at least one school-age child and the main shopper in their families.
They regularly visited fast-food outlets including the local “chippy”, kebab shop and burger chains.
Events at home were also linked to snacking – including watching a film or playing a board game, the research found.
One parent, Aisha, described the struggle to pay to celebrate her son Danny’s birthday.
“Everything involves money,” she said.
“I wanted to take Danny for his fifth birthday to soft play, but I thought about the money.
“I thought, ‘I can’t just call people and say, come. I have to pay for the kids as well.’
“Whenever I have enough, then I’ll take him.
“So nothing’s free, nothing. Apart from the park. Nothing else is free.”
Another mum, Nancy, said she felt “aggrieved” at being unable to give her young daughter “educational and enriching activities”.
Instead, she, her toddler and her mother travelled by bus to Great Yarmouth collecting a token for McDonald’s on the back of their tickets.
“Mother, daughter and granddaughter would then be able to enjoy a special meal together,” the research said.
The study added: “When aspirational activities are considered out of bounds, food related activities may be able to take their place.
“In this context, less healthy foods and (the venues) that sell and serve them provide a route to social activities and social connection that families may struggle to find elsewhere.”
Unhealthy food products were “largely within budget and easily available”, the research added.
But they were also loaded with sugar, salt and fat.
Participants criticised the fact healthier foods were more expensive.
Mum-of-two Tanya said: “We just went to the shop and they’ve got big bags of crisps, £1.50 for two and they’re normally £1 each.
“Then…Haribos, two for £1.50, the really big packets.
“It’s mainly the stuff they’re saying, ‘oh, we don’t want people eating.
“We want everyone to be healthy but then, they’ve put all the healthy stuff up and kept all the crap stuff really cheap.
“What do they expect people to be able to afford?”
The research comes as obesity rates continue to rise, with the UK ranked fourth for having the most overweight and obese adults in Europe.
Another study published in May found 70% of teenagers do not eat even a single apple a day and have diets which are “unhealthy and unsustainable”.
The government faced criticism after delaying a ban on buy one, get one free (Bogof) deals for a year – as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of playing politics with children’s health.
(c) Sky News 2022: Parents using junk food to make up for not being able to afford holidays and days out, research finds