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Expensive Food: Impact on Public Health and Society

The SME Connect Initiative Healthy Lifestyle at Work & Home (HLI) was invited by the European Parliament Liaison Office in Munich to participate as a partner in the event series #ValueEurope. The topic of the panel discussion was the critical societal health and social issue: “When Food Becomes More Expensive – Impacts on Health and Society,” held on December 14, 2023, at Café Luitpold in Munich.

How are the EU citizens’ diets, particularly in Germany, affected? And what can businesses, politics, and society do to improve health? The inflation in the European Union, driven by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, continues to be a significant burden on people. This results in higher prices in many areas, such as energy and food. Consequently, many people are forced to save money, leading not only to changes in eating habits but often to an unhealthier diet. This does not always mean too little food but often too much of the wrong kind—this phenomenon of nutritional poverty amidst abundance is on the rise in Europe.

How can the EU, its member countries, and society respond to this development? MEP Marlene Mortler, Chair of the SME Connect Working Group on Agriculture, Food, and Consumers, and State Parliament Member Gabi Schmidt, Commissioner for Volunteering of the Bavarian State Government, debated with scientists, experts, association representatives, and citizens about nutritional poverty, price increases, and specific measures to make Europe and Bavaria healthier. The debate was moderated by Dr. Udo Bux, Head of the European Parliament Liaison Office in Munich.

In the discussion, Marlene Mortler MEP pointed out that politics should not dictate what people can or cannot eat. She believes that a varied diet is the best medicine: diverse, regional, and seasonal. But, of course, not too much, but adequate. Gabi Schmidt MdL emphasized the importance of farms and local supply chains. Quality and prices must be viable for both farmers and consumers.

Jutta Saumweber, Head of the Food and Nutrition Department at the Bavarian Consumer Center, provided important insights into pricing by major discounters and nutritional labeling as a basis for consumers’ conscious purchasing decisions. Due to the price increase, it is particularly difficult for the poorest in society to eat healthily and balanced, said Axel Schweiger, Chairman of Münchner Tafel e.V., who reported on his daily work on the streets of Munich. Every week, he and his 1,000 volunteers distribute food to 20,000 needy Munich residents—an increasing trend. He also made an urgent appeal to politicians to gradually eliminate hunger from Munich’s streets.

Sociologist Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer explained how dramatic this development is. In her book “The Repressed Reality: Nutritional Poverty in Germany – Hunger in the Society of Abundance,” she illustrated the reality of hunger in Germany using qualitative data. Prof. Dr. Flechtner-Mors from the University Clinic Ulm stepped in for an expert who was unable to attend due to illness. She brought the perspective of modern nutritional science into the discussion, linking it to people’s living situations. Good nutrition can be significantly promoted through knowledge and information. It does not necessarily have to be more expensive but often requires a considerable adjustment of individual habits.

In the following open debate, participants and citizens agreed: More initiatives are needed to inform the population about healthy eating, especially to enable affordable and healthy diets. It is particularly important to impart nutritional competence from kindergarten and school onwards. Gabi Schmidt MdL also emphasized the special importance of volunteering in social work. Furthermore, politicians should keep an eye on food price developments, for example, to take social policy action if necessary or to ensure that food production costs do not rise due to unnecessary burdens.