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Social Justice

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

Families across the country are being pushed into poverty as we face a cost of living crisis. The pandemic exposed the severity of food poverty in the UK, and the situation is set to get bleaker as food prices soar.

Brits’ reliance on food banks has increased rapidly.  The Trussell Trust gave out 2.1 million emergency food parcels between April 2021 and March 2022, an increase of 14 per cent compared to the same period between 2019 and 2020. 

This is what you need to know about the causes of food poverty in the UK and campaigners’ fight to end it. 

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.  For many children, a free school meal could be the only guaranteed hot food they eat in a day. Families can sometimes be pushed  into crisis during the school holidays because they cannot afford to pay for the food their children would have received during term time.

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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 in 2020 said that low-income families were 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. 

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.

Nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February 2021, according to a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

The situation only appears to be getting worse. A total of 7.3 million adults and 2.6 million children experienced food poverty in April 2022, according to the Food Foundation. 

Other UK food poverty estimates go even higher. Charity Sustain UK said 8.4 million people in the UK are living in food poverty, with BAME, disabled and older people worst affected. 

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One in six people in the UK used a food bank in March this year, according to statistics from the Food Standards Agency. By comparison, one in 10 relied on food banks last year. 

The number of families struggling to afford food is likely higher than food bank figures would suggest, as some people report the stigma and shame around poverty being enough to stop them seeking help to eat. 

More than three quarters of people (76 per cent) responding to an Food Standards Agency survey said that rising food prices were a “major future concern” for them. Individuals living with long-term health conditions, women, and people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds were more likely to express anxiety about the cost of food, the study found.

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.

A shopping trolley of basic grocery items costs on average six per cent more than it did a year ago, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The cost of value-branded pasta saw the steepest increase of 50 per cent as of April, while crisps rose in price by 17 per cent and bread 16 per cent. The cost of meat took the sharpest upturn in cash terms, with 500g of beef mince up 32p to £2.34.

In-work poverty is on the rise and one of the main drivers behind food poverty. Around 72 per cent of children in families struggling to afford food have at least one parent who works, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

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 last year after the Covid-19 crisis caused thousands to lose their jobs or see their incomes cut significantly. 

Nearly two million people turned to food banks in 2020, double the 913,000 receiving emergency food in March 2013.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s UK wide network distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis. A total of 832,000 of these parcels went to children.

There are more than 1,400 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK, according to the most recent statistics,  in addition to at least 1,172 independent food banks.

Families with children are being hit hardest, according to research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. There was a 95 per cent increase in parcels given to households with kids during the pandemic. 

Just under 1.9 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures. This is 22.5 per cent of state school pupils.

It is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils since January 2021, when 1.74 million (20.8 per cent) of students were eligible for free school meals.

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 number of households with incomes limited by the benefit cap soared by more than 137 per cent during the pandemic, according to Government figures

Up to 76,000 households were affected by the benefit cap in February 2020, before Covid-19 hit the UK.  A total of 180,000 households had their benefit capped in August 2021.

And the no recourse to public funds policy, which stops people accessing benefits or any help from the state due to  their immigration status, is also at the root of crisis for many people in the UK.

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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.

Demand for free school meals is highest in the North East, where around 29.1 per cent of children currently qualify, compared to just 17.6  per cent in the South East. 

How can we end food poverty?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £15 billion package to support households during the cost of living crisis in May, but experts have warned that this will not be enough to help Britain’s most vulnerable families.

Eight million families struggling through the crisis on low incomes will receive a one off ‘cost of living payment’ of £650 from July, set out in two instalments. Eight million pensioners, who receive the Winter Fuel Payment, many of whom are  disproportionately impacted by the rise in energy prices, will receive a cost of living cash boost of £300.

Charities and experts have called on the government to do more to help at this time of crisis. Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: ““The measures announced will help, but won’t fully shield families with children from the pain they’re experiencing. Ultimately, we need a stronger social security system to ensure all families with children can meet their basic needs.

“With nearly four million children in families on universal credit, increasing the child element of this benefit would protect more children from growing up in desperate hardship and help give them the bright futures they deserve.”

James Taylor, director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, added: “The chancellor needs to continue to use the benefit system in the long term to target support at disabled people where it’s needed most. The Government must also make sure that no disabled people fall through the gaps in receiving the support needed to get through this winter and beyond.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: “If the chancellor is serious about supporting those who are struggling then he will need to make long-term changes to the structure of the social security system and restore the value of benefits to something that families can really live on.”

Anti-poverty campaigners, trade unions and opposition politicians 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 government removed the funding in October 2021 and dismissed calls to extend the scheme. With the cost of living rising, the loss of almost £1,040 a year has forced some claimants to choose between heating or food.

Campaigners have called on the government to expand its free school meals scheme, to ensure that children are guaranteed a full hot meal every day, Henry Dimbleby, the lead adviser on the government’s national food strategy, recommended free school meals be extended to all children under 16 living in households earning less than £20,000. 

This would have meant feeding an additional 1.1 million children, but the government has ignored this recommendation. Green MP Caroline Lucas described the strategy as an “unforgivably wasted opportunity”.

Councils and welfare experts have also made repeated calls for the no recourse to public funds policy to be suspended to reduce the number of migrants pushed into poverty.

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