Diet-related ill health is costing the NHS increasing amounts through illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease. However, this is not just a question of personal choices, but of social circumstances, with low-income communities far more likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses, and an estimated four million people in the UK are unable to obtain access to a healthy diet.
Despite their mantra of providing affordable food, supermarkets play a large part in this problem. The development of superstores on outskirts of town centres and out-of-town sites, and the closure of many local independent shops as a result, has created ‘food deserts’ – areas where it is almost impossible to buy affordable healthy food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, without private transport.
More recently, and encouraged by government initiatives, supermarket chains have begun to set up stores in deprived areas. But this is not necessarily good news:
New supermarket developments could result in the loss of even more independent shops. It is often the most socially excluded and poorest groups who are most in need of the social and economic bedrock offered by independent neighbourhood shops and markets. The loss of these shops can lead to 'food deserts' where there is little or no access to affordable and healthy food.
Which magazine surveyed people as part of a report on The Impact of Rising Food Prices and found that only 21% of people thought that supermarkets charged fair prices.
The value offered by supermarkets offers much less to the lowest income groups. They offer best value for car-based bulk buying through offers such as ‘two for one.’ Not only are these special offers mainly for processed food, but lower income groups without access to private transport, and in particularly elderly and less mobile people, are less able to advantage of them. An article in The Guardian Oct 2011 assessed how affordable supermarket offers actually are and discovered many had complex terms and conditions which undermined their affordability.
At the same time, research has shown that supermarkets are not always the cheapest sources of healthy food.