Tax gives food for thought

January 27, 1995

Food studies lecturer Stella Walsh is to monitor the diet and lifestyles of a group of pensioners in Leeds to discover what impact the introduction of VAT on fuel bills is having on their quality of life.

Although the controversial tax was recently reduced and will now only be levied at 8 per cent Ms Walsh argues this is still a significant new cost which could have a profound, if subtle, effect on individuals' lives.

"Many elderly people have already cut their fuel bill down as low as they can so something else is now going to have to give," says Ms Walsh, who works at Leeds Metropolitan University.

"Their food budget also tends to be very meagre because in many cases pensioners have very low expectations of their quality of life, particularly those who lived through the war."

Ms Walsh does not expect to find older people starving or even suffering from malnutrition although that could be a longer- term risk. The changes to lifestyle she expects to uncover will be more hidden.

"It is the social implications of food which will be really interesting," she says.

For instance, pensioners might decide to do without the Sunday roast to cut their food bill, and in particular they may stop entertaining family and friends for occasional meals. "There is really very little pleasure to be gained from food once this starts to happen and we need to discover what effect that change will have on peoples' lives."

Ms Walsh said research was divided into fuel policy and food policy and hers was an attempt to bring the two disciplines together for the first time. But the research will not be limited to dietary considerations. Other lifestyle indicators will be monitored over two to three years in a case study involving a group of pensioners who will be regularly visited.

Even simple activities such as a visit to the hairdressers, once done away with, can depress the quality of lives quite significantly. "It is important to remember that for elderly people poverty is a chronic condition," Ms Walsh says. "Unlike students, they can see no end to their hardships."

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