Low-income families struggling to buy healthy food, study finds

Families on a tight budget are struggling to buy healthy food, with some households spending almost one-third (32%) of their take-home income each week on food, a new report has been found.

The research from Safefood suggests that as inflation has soared, low-income families may have to sacrifice a healthy diet given other competing budget demands.

For all families with children, food was the largest household cost and this has only been exacerbated by recent cost-of-living increases, with staples like milk, butter, and eggs all soaring in price in the last year.

Safefood director of nutrition Dr Aileen McGloin said: “We know from the research that food is often the flexible part of the household budget and gets sacrificed when other bills need to be met.

“For a two-parent household who relies on state benefits with two children, one in primary and one in secondary school, their weekly food shop is €150 or 32% of their income. If this same household is in a rural area, the cost increases to €162 per week.”


The research, which is conducted every two years, found that food costs for families with teenage children were more than double that for households with younger children.

In 2022, the cost of a healthy food basket on the minimum essential standard of living (MESL) scale was €49.89 for a child of second-level age.

This was €15.91 more than for a child in primary school and €27.36 more than for a pre-school-age child.

For teenagers in rural areas, the social welfare supports received by parents such as child benefits and the increase for a qualified child would cover around 62% of the cost of a healthy MESL food basket a week.

“[But] food is only one area of ​​expenditure,” Safefood pointed out. “Households with children also face other costs – including clothing, education and social inclusion – and the cost of meeting the minimum needs of the household overall.”

For working-age employed households, meanwhile, the minimum food basket takes up between 13%-26% of their household income.


Examining the needs of pensioners, the Safefood research suggested that such households had seen the largest decrease in the percentage of their income spent on food from 2020 to 2022. This was due to increases in the State pension, the Living Alone Allowance, and related supports having improved their income, it said.

“Despite this improvement, and the increases in the Living Alone Allowance that have been introduced during this time, there remains a difference in the proportion of household income spent on food, when a retired couple is compared to a pensioner living alone,” the report said.

“The pensioner living alone needs to use a larger percentage of their income for food.”

Safefood said the contents of the food baskets used in its analysis were based on menus put together by the households themselves.

People selected an acceptable food basket in terms of taste and menu choices, while also meeting the social needs of a household, for example hosting visitors or special occasions like birthdays, he said. The food baskets were then reviewed by nutritionists to ensure they met the nutritional guidelines of the Food Pyramid and then price-checked accordingly.

However, the analysis only captures prices in March 2022, prior to the further spikes in the cost of groceries seen in the last 14 months. It is possible that hard-pressed families have been placed under further pressure in terms of their household incomes than these results suggest.

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