Big Issue Vendor

Food poverty in the UK: The causes, figures and solutions

The UK's rate of food poverty is among the worst in Europe. As the pandemic makes it harder for people to afford to eat, we explain what you need to know about the country's growing hunger crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has pushed many families into hardship and exposed the severity of the UK’s food poverty problem.

As the country’s reliance on food banks soars, this is what you need to know about Brits’ struggle to eat.

More than 1,000 Big Issue vendors are out of work because of the second lockdown in England. They can’t sell the magazine and they can’t rely on the income they need.

The Big Issue is helping our vendors with supermarket vouchers and gift payments but we need your help to do that.

Please consider buying this week’s magazine from the online shop or take out a subscription to make sure we can continue to support our vendors over this difficult period. You can even link your subscription to your local vendor with our new online map.

What is food poverty?

People living in food poverty either don’t have enough money to buy sufficient nutritious food, struggle to get it because it is not easily accessible in their community, or both. 

It can be a long-term issue in someone’s life or can affect someone for a shorter period of time because of a sudden change in their personal circumstances. 

Food insecurity leaves many people reliant on emergency parcels from food banks and means that for many children, their free school meal could be the only guaranteed hot food they eat in a day. It pushes families into crisis during the school holidays because they cannot afford to pay for the food their children would have received during term time.

That can also mean parents eat less or skip meals entirely to make sure there is enough for their children to eat. Some people find they can only afford unhealthy food lacking nutrition, widening health inequalities between wealthy and disadvantaged people in the UK. A Lords’ report published earlier this year said that low-income families are left with “little or no choice” about diet, forced to eat unhealthy food or simply go without. Others don’t live in a home with facilities for cooking or storing meals. 

Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription

The UK also has a problem with so-called “food deserts”, defined as an area populated by 5-15,000 people who have access to two or fewer big supermarkets. Many of these areas are dotted with smaller convenience stores – which are demonstrably more expensive and less likely to stock fresh, healthy supplies – and force people who can’t afford private transport to go without the healthy food they need.

How many people are in food poverty in the UK?

The UK’s food poverty rate is among the highest in Europe. Despite being the sixth richest country in the world, millions are struggling to access the food they need.

Sustain UK estimates that 8.4 million people in the UK are living in food poverty, with BAME, disabled and older people worst affected. Many people struggling for food are employed as 72 per cent of children in poverty have at least one parent who works, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

In 2019-20, a record high of nearly two million people in the UK used a food bank, according to the Trussell Trust. The number of families struggling to afford food is likely higher, as some people report the stigma and shame around poverty being enough to stop them seeking help to eat. Around a million people live in “food deserts”, the Social Market Foundation said.

What causes food poverty?

Most people who fall into food poverty struggle because their income is too low or unreliable. This can be caused by low wages, a patchy social security system and benefit sanctions, which make it difficult to cover rent, fuel and food costs.

It can also be a result of living costs which are rising much faster than average pay does, which is why the Living Wage Foundation encourages employers to voluntarily commit to paying the Real Living Wage – calculated according to the real cost of living.

Mounting debt can trap people in poverty and force them to rely on food banks, while disabilities and mental health problems make it harder for people to afford the food they need.

Why is food poverty increasing in the UK?

The UK’s reliance on food banks has been rising consistently year on year for nearly a decade. But the number of people in need of emergency food parcels hit new heights this year after the Covid-19 crisis caused thousands to lose their jobs or see their incomes cut significantly. The nearly two million people who turned to food banks this year are a marked rise on the 913,000 receiving emergency food in March 2013.

Families with children are being hit hardest, according to research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed, with a 95 per cent increase in parcels given to households with kids during the pandemic. Nearly 15 per cent of families with children have struggled to afford food since March this year, the Food Foundation said, and nearly a million kids were registered for free school meals for this first time this year.

The Trussell Trust is concerned it could be giving out six emergency food parcels every minute this winter.

Experts also point to local authority budget cuts and a failing welfare safety net as a major driver of food bank use, with the five-week wait for Universal Credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap among some of the policies trapping people in poverty. The no recourse to public funds rule, which stops people accessing benefits or any help from the state depending on their immigration status, is also at the root of crisis for many people in the UK.

Where is food poverty worst?

A study produced by Kellogg’s and thinktank Social Market Foundation found that the UK’s most severe “food deserts” were in Hattersley in Greater Manchester, Rumney in Cardiff, Everton in Liverpool and Dalmarnock in Glasgow. 

People in London areas including Croydon and Southwark as well as cities in the north of England like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle have high rates of food poverty, while cities in the north and north east of England are at highest risk of facing food poverty.

How can we end food poverty?

Anti-poverty campaigners, trade unions and opposition politicians alike have united in calling for the temporary £20 Universal Credit uplift, brought in as an emergency measure at the start of lockdown, to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits. 

The five-week wait to receive a first Universal Credit payment also leaves people without any money to afford food, which is why charities want the Government to make the advanced loan given to cover this period a non-repayable grant – reducing the poverty already-struggling people

Earlier this year the Trussell Trust also called for benefit debt deductions to be suspended and for £250 million to be invested in local welfare assistance across England to reduce reliance on their services. 

Councils and welfare experts have also made repeated calls for the no recourse to public funds policy to be suspended at least for the duration of the pandemic to reduce the number of migrants pushed into poverty. In august, organisations including The Children’s Society, UNISON, Action for Children and Project 17 wrote to the education secretary demanding children whose families have NRPF are given free school meals to stop thousands going hungry.