Sustain / Food Poverty

What is food poverty? Who is most at risk?

What is food poverty?  

Food poverty, often referred to as 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. It encompasses both the affordability of food and its availability within local communities. 

This is because food poverty has multiple negative impacts on individuals’ health and wellbeing, including a lack of healthy food, a lack of access to food and a high proportion of food high in fat, salt and sugar. 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 inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet.’ 

The Department of Health

‘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.’ 

Professor Tim Lang

‘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.’ 

Professor Elizabeth Dowler

Who is most at risk? 

With an estimated 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to get enough to eat,  food insecurity can, and does, affect anyone. Children who are unable to access free school meals during the holidays; parents on low incomes who skip meals so that their children can eat; Individuals who are using food banks for the first time after a job loss; Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities; people with no recourse to public funds who are excluded from accessing most welfare support, or older people left at home, unable to prepare meals without support. 

These instances are a symptom of inadequate and/or insecure incomes, holes in the welfare safety net, increased living costs, rising debt, and financial problems for households living with disability and mental health issues. 

These symptoms don’t affect people equally though. 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 minority ethnic people are also twice as likely The Covid-19 outbreak has exacerbated the disproportionate impact of poverty on certain groups. For example, people identifying as Black or Black British were significantly overrepresented in those that need to use Trussell Trust food banks with 9% of food bank users falling in this group, while representing 3% of the UK population.  

The need for action

Sustain believes that modern-day hunger is unacceptable, and we are working to end it by improving 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 being unfairly 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.

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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