New research reveals influence of social and emotional pressures on food choices living on a low income

  • Food choices and meal preparation greatly influenced by children
  • Isolation of living alone had a negative impact on motivation to cook
  • Cost, lack of convenience, taste and potential wastage all barriers to healthy eating

02 November, 2011. New research on food poverty has revealed that while food choices for low income households are influenced by budget, they are also greatly influenced by emotions and social pressures around food. The research - ‘Food on a low income – Four households tell their story’ was funded by safefood and has revealed the influence of children’s ‘pester power’, the priorities of living day to day and putting food on the table, the feelings of isolation and a lack of motivation to cook and the stark differences between the experience of households with children and those living on their own.

Launching the report, Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland MLA said “I welcome the opportunity to launch safefood’s new research highlighting the issue of food poverty and the inability of many different groups within society to access an affordable healthy diet. Most of the work of my Department is directed at the most disadvantaged in our society and a key priority for me will be on closing the gap between the quality of life for people in the most deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of the community. The report provides real-life experiences of the difficulties individuals and families face on a daily basis and can help inform the development of future policy and community programmes in this area”.

Speaking at the launch, Dr. Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood commented

It is well recognised that diet-related ill health disproportionately affects low income households. This research has provided a platform for those living on a low income to share their personal experiences of food and tell their own stories. In doing so, it further informs those working in public policy and the community sector to be responsive and practical when tackling this growing issue.”

The research identified a number of common issues among the four low-income households¹ who took part in the research. There was a strong sense from all of the groups that their priority is to make the most of the limited budget on which they are living day by day:

All groups employed specific strategies when shopping so as not to deviate away from their budget and the main priority for most was to put food on the table and not the nutritional content.

• “Frozen pizza from the supermarket, they are only £1 and you can get a load of them – do them all week” (Lone Parent, Belfast)

While participants reported knowing about healthy eating, they saw the barriers to this such as cost, convenience, taste and potential wastage as being difficult to overcome.

• “It’s cheaper to buy a packet of burgers than it is to buy a packet of apples” (Lone Parent, Dublin)

The research also identified stark differences between the experience of households with children and those living on their own:

Findings showed that children have a huge influence on what food is bought and eaten in many households and a lot of parents were found to be in a cycle of preparing different meals depending on children’s preferences and schedules. Mothers often skipped meals and many prioritised feeding their children over themselves.

• “I feel you have no choice. You try and give them what they want.”
(Lone Parent, Clonmel)

For many single men, living on their own lead to a lack of motivation to cook for themselves and so they ate irregularly and relied on readymade convenience foods.

• “It is very depressing when you are cooking for just one. I have cooked myself a meal and just threw it in the bin.” (Single Male, Belfast)

One approach to tackling food poverty is supporting practical food initiatives in the local community. safefood’s funded Demonstration Programme of Community Food Initiatives aims to promote greater access and availability of healthy food to those on low incomes and seven community food initiatives currently receive funding from safefood to set up, manage and sustain their project.

The initiatives are managed at a local level by Healthy Food for All, an all-island multi-agency initiative seeking to promote healthy food for low-income groups. Ms Marjo Moonen, Chair of Healthy Food for All, explains;

The stress of preparing food for a family – whatever its composition – emanates from these stories. There seems to be very little enjoyment associated with food. On a small budget the anxiety associated with ‘putting something on the table right now’ becomes prohibitive to even thinking about affordable, healthy options. Structural changes in the food system, in the ways food is grown, sold, prepared and eaten, are necessary to make healthy food an easy and pleasurable choice for everyone.” 

In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that 20% of people² live in low-income households and 25% of children live in poverty. In the Republic of Ireland, 14% of the population³ was found to be at risk of poverty, with increased levels among children (18%), the unemployed (33%) and lone parents (35%).

The summary report ‘Food on a low income – Four households tell their story’ is available to download from

Food on a low income (PDF, 800KB)

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For further information please contact:

David Cullen


Dermot Moriarty
Mob: +353 86 381 1034


¹ The four low-income household groupings that were the focus of the study were:
o Two parents with children (a mix of younger and older children)
o Lone parent with one/two children
o Single male (aged 25+) living alone
o Single older person (aged 65+) living alone

² “Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland 2009 - Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available from

³Central Statistics Office (CSO) Survey on income and living conditions (SLIC) 2009. The Stationery Office, Dublin 2010.

Notes to Editors

• In total, thirteen focus groups were conducted in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and spread across rural, urban and city locations. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, participants were recruited from established community groups. The focus groups were carried out between June and August 2010 by Millward Brown Lansdowne.

• Some of the issues specific to household types were;

o Children’s “pester power” had a huge influence on what food was bought and eaten. Consequently, there were frequently several types of meals prepared at different times for different family members resulting in a reliance on convenience and processed food.
o Meal skipping among mothers was also evident, with many prioritizing feeding their children over themselves
o For single males, there was an active dislike of shopping for, and preparing food. This combined with living alone had a strong negative impact on eating habits
o For older people, traditional eating patterns were strong and the majority were confident in their cooking skills. However, many described loneliness related to eating alone and boredom around having a predictable diet.

• The seven recipients of safefood’s Community Food Initiative funding are:

o East Belfast Healthy Eating Education Programme (Belfast)
o Food Focus Community Food Initiative (Cork)
o Food for Life (Derry)
o Footprints Women’s Centre Building a Transition Community (Belfast)
o KASI Community Garden (Killarney)
o Limerick Seed to Plate Project (Limerick)
o The Food Garden Project (Dundalk)