Affordability of healthy diets and the COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers call for fully-supplemented JobSeeker rates to be retained permanently

Researchers examined the positive impact of additional payments and supplements to unemployment benefits (JobSeeker) during the COVID-19 pandemic on the affordability of healthy diets in Australia.

Investigators for the Prevention Centre project Diet and chronic disease prevention: Supporting implementation of priority actions in the food and nutrition system have examined the impact of the Coronavirus Supplement and additional cash payments during the COVID-19 pandemic on the affordability of healthy diets.

A letter published recently in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health by PhD student Meron Lewis and principal supervisor Professor Amanda Lee, calls for the original Coronavirus Supplement to unemployment benefits to be retained.

The cost of food is often cited as a barrier to equitable access to healthy diets. Evidence shows strong links between poor diets and increased risk of several chronic health conditions and population-level burden of disease.

“The full Coronavirus Supplement to unemployment benefits should be retained in its entirety – permanently.”

Meron Lewis and Professor Amanda Lee
Professor Amanda Lee (l) and Meron Lewis (r)

The Healthy Diets Australian Standardised Affordability and Pricing (HD-ASAP) protocol assesses, compares and monitors the cost, cost differential and affordability of healthy (recommended) and current (unhealthy) diets in Australia. The protocol was developed in earlier research undertaken by a team of Prevention Centre Investigators.

When diet costs more than 25% of disposable income, households are considered to be in ‘food stress’; when more than 30%, healthy diets are considered ‘unaffordable’.

“We had estimated before May 2020 that a healthy diet – fresh foods and healthy, branded and packaged items – cost welfare-dependent families of two adults and two children $624 a fortnight, comprising 36% of their household income,” said Professor Lee.

This was ‘unaffordable’ and a healthy diet was out of reach for these families. Even with the common coping strategy of purchasing cheaper generic brands, around 25% of household income was required to purchase a healthy diet. This stressful situation has long-term implications for health and healthcare costs.  

“However, with the supplement to JobSeeker, healthy diets became attainable – costing 20% of welfare dependant households’ income,” said Meron Lewis.

After the Coronavirus Supplement came into effect an Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) survey found 83% of welfare‐dependent people reported eating healthier and more regularly than before COVID‐19.

Politicians from both sides of the divide and organisations including ACOSS have called for an increase to unemployment benefits and the maintenance of the original supplement.

“Our findings of improved affordability of healthy diets during COVID‐19 support the need for adequate income to ensure all Australians can put healthy food on the table,” said Professor Lee.

Read the full letter in Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

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Story by Helen Loughlin, Senior Communications Officer