What is food poverty? Who is most at risk?

An estimated 8.4 million people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. This includes many households with people in work, families with children, as well as older, disabled and BAME people.

Food poverty, or household food insecurity, can be triggered by a crisis in finance or personal circumstances, but may also be a long-term experience of not being able to access or have the facilities to prepare a healthy diet.

The experiences of these people are just the tip of the iceberg. Food poverty, or household food insecurity, has a myriad of faces. It can affect children who lack free school meals during the holidays; parents on low incomes going without food so that their children can eat; working people whose low wages leave them struggling to buy nutritious food; people with no recourse to public funds, or older people unable to prepare meals without support.

In 2018-19, The Trussell Trust, the largest UK food bank network, provided 1.6 million packages of emergency food supplies. For comparison, in 2009 they supplied 41,000 packages. This rise is a symptom of inadequate and/or insecure incomes, holes in the welfare safety net, benefits sanctioning, increasing living costs, rising debt, and financial problems for households living with disability and mental health issues.

Some groups are more likely to experience food poverty. In 2017 analysis found that half of the Trussell Trust’s emergency food packages went to households including a disabled person and three-quarters of them to people experiencing ill-health and associated financial insecurity. Black, Asian and minoirty ethnic (BAME) people are also more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity. The Covid-19 outbreak and its ongoing impact have further highlighted this disproportionate impact on certain groups.

Sustain believes that modern-day hunger is unacceptable, and we work to improve policy and practice at the national and local level. Many councils, community groups and others are taking action to ensure people are able to eat and to address the root causes of people’s difficulties. However, we witness time and again how local action is being severely hampered by public policy that sometimes significantly increases, rather than reduces, food insecurity for many households.

Major cuts to local authority budgets and rising fuel, food and housing costs undermine local efforts to address food poverty. And at a national level, welfare policy does not provide an adequate safety net for those experiencing food poverty for both people in and out of work.

We therefore call on government, councils and other statutory partners to step up and tackle the root causes of food poverty together, thereby rebalancing the burden of responsibility that currently falls far too heavily on charities, faith groups, volunteers and others responding to local need. These groups are unfairly being relied on to respond to people in food crisis, and in some cases replace what should be provided by fair pay and our shared safety net.

Defining food poverty

Food poverty, or household food insecurity, encompasses both the affordability of food, as well as its availability within local communities.

It is vital that household food insecurity is seen as being driven by both the affordability and availability of a nutritious diet. Food poverty has multiple negative impacts on individuals’ health and wellbeing. It is important to ensure that people can access a healthy diet in a socially acceptable way and have sufficient certainty about how they will secure a healthy diet for themselves and their households. Sustain uses these definitions to set out both the scope and impact of food poverty:

The Department of Health defines food poverty as ‘The inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet.’

Professor Tim Lang characterises the detrimental impact of food poverty:  ‘Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods.  Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit and vegetables.’

Renowned expert Professor Elizabeth Dowler adds that people should be able to access food in a socially acceptable way, defining food insecurity as ‘The inability to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.’

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Food Poverty

Over 8 million people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. Sustain is working with communities, third-sector organisations, local authorities and government, aiming to make sure everyone can eat well.

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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