News Release

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

New study suggests that low-income parents in England buy unhealthy food influenced not only by its availability, cheapness and marketing, but by non-food aspects of wellbeing that they are unable to provide their families.

Peer-Reviewed Publication

City University London

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.

The data from these sources were coded in a ‘thematic analysis’ to identify key themes which informed the interpretation of the findings, summarised overall as:

  • low-income families use many tools to navigate food environments and feed families within budget.
  • food environments push families to unhealthy foods but support other aspects of wellbeing.
  • food practices shape how families engage with food environments.
  • Food environment interventions must also address the broader aspects of people's lives

Based on the findings, the study authors’ policy recommendations include removing unhealthy food promotions and food service outlets from the food environment, whilst crucially replacing them with healthier promotions and outlets to retain the opportunities for social wellbeing these provide for families.

Further recommendations include increasing the number of affordable, family activities available in deprived, local communities; making existing activities more affordable, such as through the availability of discounts; and addressing the broader social need to lift families out of financial insecurity, such as through more extensive benefit schemes, living wage policies, and action on insecure work provision.

Professor Corinna Hawkes is the Principal Investigator of the study, and Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. She said:

Given the wonderful food available in this country, it’s a travesty how many people’s health is damaged by poor quality diets. This study shows that the pathway forward involves understanding how people experience food in their everyday realities. Policy to address inequalities will only work if it recognises that food is more than just nutrition and must meet a wider range of people’s needs, such as social and economic well-being.

The study is published online in the journal, Health & Place.

The authors undertook this study as part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Obesity Policy Research Unit that conducts independent research to inform government policy.


Notes to editors

Contact details:

To speak to Professor Corinna Hawkes contact Shamim Quadir, Senior Communications Officer, School of Health Sciences. Tel: +44(0) 207 040 8782 Email:

Read the research article

About City, University of London

City, University of London is a global higher education institution committed to academic excellence, with a focus on business and the professions and an enviable central London location.

City’s academic range is broadly-based with world-leading strengths in business; law; health sciences; mathematics; computer science; engineering; social sciences; and the arts including journalism and music.

City has around 20,000 students (46% at postgraduate level) from more than 160 countries and staff from over 75 countries.

In the last REF, City doubled the proportion of its total academic staff producing world-leading or internationally excellent research.

More than 140,000 former students from over 180 countries are members of the City Alumni Network.

The University’s history dates from 1894, with the foundation of the Northampton Institute on what is now the main part of City’s campus.  In 1966, City was granted University status by Royal Charter and the Lord Mayor of London became its Chancellor. In September 2016, City joined the University of London and HRH the Princess Royal became City’s Chancellor.

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