A decent diet is a funda­men­tal right

Switzerland is feeling the impact of price increases, particularly where food is concerned. But the food price crisis is not affecting everyone equally.

The increa­ses are having the grea­test impact on the poorest members of society

A lot of people in Switz­er­land are curr­ently suffe­ring the effects of rising food prices. ‘People who don’t have enough money can’t afford these price increa­ses and many are not eating properly as a result,’ explains Niels Jost, media spokesper­son for Cari­tas Switz­er­land. The incre­asing cost of food is having a grea­ter impact on those who are living on a tight budget. ‘Low-income house­holds spend almost all of their money – 90 per cent of their budget – on food, accom­mo­da­tion and other basic goods and services. It is virtually impos­si­ble to make savings on day-to-day basic expen­ses like these.’ These costs only repre­sent half of the average Swiss household’s expen­dit­ure. Pro rata, poorer house­holds also spend twice as much on food as the average house­hold. This is where the 22 Cari­tas markets come to the fore, provi­ding easily acces­si­ble direct aid to those affec­ted by poverty in Switz­er­land. The basic idea has remained the same since 1992, when the first Cari­tas market opened in Basel. ‘The primary aim of the Cari­tas markets is to enable people who are affec­ted by poverty to buy food at chea­per prices, helping them to afford fresh and healthy food.’

Food infla­tion

Accor­ding to surveys for the Fede­ral Statis­ti­cal Office, the price increa­ses are substan­tial. Follo­wing average annual infla­tion of 0.3 per cent over the last decade, gene­ral infla­tion in Switz­er­land the year before last was 2.8 per cent, and food prices increased by an average of 1.7 per cent. The trend was driven by incre­asing energy prices, resul­ting from the Russian inva­sion of Ukraine, and a global economy that has been slow to reco­ver from the impact of COVID. Last year, infla­tion in Switz­er­land was 2.1 per cent, a lower figure than many finan­cial experts expec­ted. Infla­tion appears to be slowing in some sectors.

«The highest demand is for staples.»

Niels Jost, media spokesper­son for Cari­tas Switzerland

It is not slowing, howe­ver, where food is concer­ned. Over the past year, the average annual price increase here was a whop­ping 4.8 per cent. And, as the Cari­tas markets have noti­ced, the price of basic food items is rising dispro­por­tio­na­tely. Jost explains, ‘The highest demand is for stap­les such as rice, pasta, eggs and dairy – essen­tial food­s­tuffs.’ Another factor placing an extra burden on custo­mers with limi­ted buying power is the fact that, in percen­tage terms, budget ranges have under­gone a shar­per price hike than brand-name goods. The low prices and tight margins play a central role here: where an item costs one franc, an increase of just 10 centi­mes repres­ents a 10 per cent price hike. Where the item initi­ally costs three francs, the same increase only repres­ents a 3 per cent rise. Cari­tas aims to offer a balan­ced selec­tion of produce, as Jost explains, ‘We do include certain brand-name items in our range. It means we can offer custo­mers a choice and enable them to eat decently – they don’t always have to buy the budget brands. Our custo­mers appre­ciate that a lot.’

Food price infla­tion in Switz­er­land is still less than half the rate in the EU. This is due, in part, to Switzerland’s posi­tion as a ‘high-price island’. High Swiss prices act as a buffer on price fluc­tua­tions. The high labour and logi­stics costs in Switz­er­land are less suscep­ti­ble to infla­tion and have a stabi­li­sing effect: because these areas make up a large part of the food costs in the retail sector, the effect of chan­ges in the price of raw mate­ri­als is less noti­ceable. And since the fixed costs of food produc­tion in Switz­er­land – like wages and machi­nery – play a much bigger role when it comes to pricing than the varia­ble costs such as seeds and pesti­ci­des, this also has a calming effect on price fluctuations.

The conse­quen­ces for health

Incre­asing food prices have wide-ranging conse­quen­ces. ‘Money worries mean that many people living on the bread­line do not enjoy a balan­ced diet. The focus is often on filling up rather than on eating healt­hily. And that can lead to health problems. So we feel it is very important to offer those affec­ted by poverty discoun­ted access to a balan­ced and healthy range of food,’ Jost explains. Over­all, the lack of a balan­ced diet leads to a redu­ced quality of life, and many condi­ti­ons such as heart dise­ase, diabe­tes and high blood pres­sure are exacer­ba­ted by malnu­tri­tion. The Cari­tas markets offer a broad range of fresh and healthy food items, helping people on a tight budget to eat well. ‘Dise­ase can lead to poverty and poverty can lead to dise­ase. It has been statis­ti­cally proven that people with low finan­cial means tend to expe­ri­ence more problems with their health,’ Jost states. For people living in Switz­er­land, a dise­ase or an acci­dent are also the most frequent causes of debt.

«Money worries mean that many people living on the bread­line do not enjoy a balan­ced diet.»

Niels Jost

Unfet­te­red demand

With 1.1 million custo­mer move­ments in 2023 – 50,000 up on the 2022 figure – the Cari­tas markets are more in demand than ever before. Accor­ding to Cari­tas, the primary reason for the increase in demand is infla­tion. Unfort­u­na­tely, howe­ver, resour­ces are finite and the Cari­tas markets need to recruit donors. ‘The Cari­tas markets rely on dona­ted produce and on dona­ti­ons from chari­ties. Unfort­u­na­tely, it is beco­ming incre­asingly diffi­cult to find enough support,’ states Niels Jost. There is a huge call for insti­tu­tio­nal donors in parti­cu­lar. In the mean­time, Cari­tas is conti­nuing with its work, because one thing is clear: ‘A decent diet is a funda­men­tal right, not a luxury!’

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