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Mothers are skipping meals to feed their children and homeowners are forgoing insurance as the price of food continues to rise, an expert says.
The cost of food increased 1.4 per cent in the year to November, Statistics New Zealand said, driven largely by the increased cost of meat, poultry and dairy.
Fresh milk prices were up 6.7 per cent, with butter up 23 per cent and cheese up 5.4 per cent. Meat and poultry prices were up 8.2 per cent overall, with beef up 2.1 per cent and lamb up 4.4 per cent.
Poverty and nutrition expert Associate Professor Winsome Parnell, of Otago University, said food prices had been creeping up by $2 a week over the last three decades, making it tighter and tighter for people on fixed incomes.
Perishable goods like milk were the quickest to fall off the shopping list, and people also opted for meat-free meals or chose cheaper cuts.
When people got really stuck, they would cut out other essential costs like house insurance. Mothers also went without in order to feed their children, Professor Parnell said.
"There is a tendency to compromise on the food budget to accommodate other things, but there's a limit beyond which you can't go," she said.
"But if it gets extremely severe, well yes, you can go hungry."
Wellington dietician Vicki Robinson, a public health nutrition expert, said price increases were a barrier to people on low incomes eating healthily, and could lead to a long-term increase in obesity and other health problems.
"If you don't have a lot of money and prices of meat go up, it's probably going to drive you to either have less meat, or it's going to drive you to choose less expensive choices, which tend to be fattier."
But Nutrition Foundation dietitian Sarah Hanrahan said it was encouraging that the cost of staples like bread, fruit and vegetables had remained fairly steady.
"The only thing that had gone up substantially was milk, out of that staple range."
Ms Hanrahan said the prices showed eating seasonally was important. She cited the cost of pumpkin, which dropped 54 per cent on last year to $2.31 a kilogram.
Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich said rising commodity prices had placed many food companies under immense pressure, particularly those using dairy ingredients.
But with supermarkets calling for a halt to price increases, the costs had mostly been absorbed by food companies rather than consumers.
"There has been such rampant discounting within the grocery sector that on some categories, prices have gone backwards," she said.
"But over a period of time, many of these costs will have to be passed on."
Beef and Lamb communications manager Kim Doran said beef and lamb price rises were relatively small and most people would probably not even notice.
"They will be buying per serve rather than per kilo, and retailers will do their best to make cuts meet the price points of their specific customers."
Federated Farmers Waikato president James Houghton said the rate of inflation was at the same level as the food price increase, or 1.4 per cent, so producers and consumers were on an even keel.
"The dairy industry is very aware of making its product accessible and this is why dairy farmers support and understand the New Zealand consumers as we are consumers as well. A good example is the initiative to get dairy products into schools at no cost to the kids or the schools."