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 cost of living crisis makes it harder for people to afford to eat, we explain what you need to know about the country’s growing hunger crisis
by: Isabella McRae and Hannah Westwater
4 Jan 2023
Millions of people are facing food poverty in the cost of living crisis. Image: Unsplash
The cost of living crisis is exposing the severity of food poverty in the UK. Millions are being pushed below the breadline as food prices soar, with many struggling to feed themselves and their families.
New figures show annual food inflation jumped to 13.3 per cent in December 2022, up from 12.4 per cent in November, according to trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the data firm Nielsen. It’s the biggest jump in food prices since the BRC started collecting data in 2005.
The Trussell Trust saw record numbers of people seeking help between April and September last year, with 320,000 people forced to turn to the charity’s food banks. That is a 40 per cent increase in comparison to the previous year.
The charity has warned that need is outstripping donations for the first time in its history – forcing the Trussell Trust to launch an emergency appeal to ensure that food banks can meet the “alarming level” of need in their community.
Meanwhile, over 91 per cent of independent food banks reported increased need for their services in November 2022 compared with November 2021.
This is what you need to know about the causes of food poverty in the UK and campaigners’ fight to end it as the cost of living crisis spirals.
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 children living in food poverty, 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.
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.
Researchers at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) found that “people are having to buy what they can afford rather than having the luxury of choice” in the cost of living crisis – often, that means opting for the unhealthy option. Other people don’t live in a home with facilities for cooking or storing meals.
The UK also has a problem with so-called “food deserts”, areas where people have little access to 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.
According to the latest government statistics, 4.2 million people (6 per cent) were living in food poverty in 2020 to 2021. It includes 9 per cent of all children.
With the cost of living crisis, the situation is only getting worse. A total of 9.7 million adults experienced food insecurity in September 2022, the Food Foundation reports. Over half (53.8 per cent) of universal credit claimants faced food poverty in September.
Graph from the Food Foundation
One in four households with children experienced food insecurity in September 2022 – affecting four million children.
The TUC has found one in seven people across the UK (14 per cent) are skipping meals or going without food because they can’t afford the essentials. And over two-fifths (44 per cent) of Brits are having to cut back on food spending.
A record 320,000 people were forced to turn to Trussell Trust food banks between April and September in 2021. A total of 1.3 million food parcels were given out during this six-month period – more than ever before. Almost half a million of these went to children.
It is a third more food parcels than were provided in the same period in 2021, and it’s an increase of more than 50 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels.
In the first half of this financial year alone, Trussell Trust food banks provided more parcels than in a full 12-month period five years ago, when 1.2 million emergency food parcels were distributed.
Food banks are at “breaking point both physically and mentally” and they are set to face their hardest winter yet, according to the charity. They expect to provide an average of more than 7,000 emergency food parcels a day in the next six months.
According to the Independent Food Aid Network, over 91 per cent of member organisations reported increased need for their services comparing November 2021 with November 2022.
Kathy Bland of the Leominster Food Bank in Herefordshire said: “We have given out more than double the food parcels distributed in 2021 and December has seen a tsunami of need that we predicted was on its way. People are cold, hungry and desperate.
“Our volunteers cannot keep up with this level of service and I don’t believe we’ve seen the worst of this crisis yet. They are exhausted and scared about how we can carry on if numbers continue to rise. The scale of need is not something food banks should feel responsible for. Incomes need to increase so that people can afford the basics in life.”
Around 90 per cent of groups reported helping both people who had not previously accessed support as well as people needing regular food aid. And from September to November 2022, over two thirds of organisations had experienced supply issues.
Jen Coleman of Black Country Foodbank in Dudley said: “We feel very concerned about January 2023, historically a difficult month anyway, because of the financial challenges this December has seen. So many people are facing debt and increased energy bills while buying food is not an option. And our figures are just the tip of the iceberg because so many people won’t use food charities and will suffer silently.”
Meanwhile, 46 per cent of organisations were concerned about their capacity to support people if demand stayed the same or continued to increase.
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.
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.
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.
More than three quarters of people (76 per cent) responding to a 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.
Food poverty 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.
One in five people referred to a food bank in the Trussell Trust network are from working households, according to the charity. Food banks are supporting an increasing number of people who are working but still can’t afford the essentials – which is leading to food banks having to change their opening times so people can pick up food outside of working hours.
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?
Soaring prices are affecting household budgets, which means families are increasingly experiencing food insecurity. Food and non-alcoholic beverage prices rose by a record 13.3 per cent in the 12 months to December 2022, up from 12.4 per cent in November.
“It was a challenging Christmas for many households across the UK,” the BRC’s chief executive, Helen Dickinson, said. “2023 will be another difficult year for consumers and businesses as inflation shows no immediate signs of waning.”
Josie Barlow, food bank manager at Bradford Foodbank, said: “Someone who came to the food bank recently told me that ‘buying milk is a luxury now’. So many people are struggling with bills and food prices.
“We have seen a huge increase in people coming to the food bank in the last two months compared to the same period last year and our stock levels are very low for this time of the year.”
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 the crisis for many people in the UK.
Who is most affected by food poverty?
People who are already struggling are most likely to be affected by food poverty. Over half of households on universal credit have experienced food insecurity in the past month, according to the Food Foundation.
There has been a widening of inequalities experienced by people with disabilities. Almost half (45 per cent) of people who are “very limited” have experienced food insecurity in the last month. That’s in comparison to less than a quarter (24 per cent) who are “limited a little” and 13 per cent who are not limited at all.
Non-white ethnic groups are more likely to be food insecure than white ethnic groups (26.9 per cent in comparison to 18.5 per cent), according to the latest Food Foundation statistics.
Where is food poverty worst?
According to the Food Foundation, food poverty is currently worst in the north east of the country – where 27.8 per cent of residents faced difficulties affording food in the last month. Scotland also has high levels of food poverty at 24.2 per cent, while Northern Ireland reports levels at 22.4 per cent.
Map showing regional inequalities regarding food insecurity in the UK. Image: Food Foundation
While one in seven people across the UK have skipped meals and gone without food, it’s worse in some areas of the country.
In Birmingham Ladywood, well over one in four (29 per cent) of people are skipping or going without food, according to the TUC. That’s followed by Dundee West (27 per cent), Glasgow (24 per cent) and Rhondda (24 per cent).
In Bootle, Birmingham Ladywood and Liverpool Walton, six in 10 constituents are cutting back on food spending. But in wealthier constituencies like Richmond Park and Chelsea and Fulham, it’s still affecting three in 10 local residents.
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?
Charities and experts have called on the government to do more to help people through the cost of living crisis. This means targeted support for people living in poverty through increases to universal credit and minimum wage, an expansion of the free school meals scheme and a freeze on rents.
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.
Jo Ralling, of the Food Foundation, told the Big Issue: “We have over 800,000 children living in poverty who currently do not qualify for a free school meal and the government urgently needs to extend the scheme. We know that well nourished children have better attendance, increased concentration which leads to better academic results.”
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 to uprate benefits in line with inflation.
Emma Revie, the chief executive of the Trussell Trust, has urged the government to ensure there is a “broad package of support” for people on the lowest incomes by increasing benefits in line with inflation and closing the gap between price rises and incomes this winter.
“We know that with the right support and a stable and sufficient income, people don’t need to turn to food banks for support,” she said.
“Over the last few years, the government has acted to protect people who are struggling, and this action has made a difference. They must now act again: with swift support now to help people through the winter, and with vision for the longer-term to ensure that social security is always enough to weather challenging times.”
Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said: “We cannot continue to normalise a crisis, volunteer-led response to entrenched and rapidly worsening poverty in our society. November’s Cost of Living payments demonstrated that cash first support, however short-lived, can reduce the need for food banks.
“However welcome the 10.1 per cent increase in benefits will be in April, it is likely to barely scratch the surface when it comes to reducing food insecurity and the clearly unsustainable pressure on charitable food aid providers.
“Our government must take responsibility for the policies driving Britain’s poverty epidemic and reduce the impact it will have on the health and wealth of millions of people for years to come. Impoverishing a large section of our society does not make either moral or economic sense.”
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.