UK food poverty now a public health emergency

Research output: Other contribution


Dr Sinéad Furey of Ulster University says that food poverty is now a public health emergency and the number of emergency food parcels distributed by food banks is rising.

In January 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee published their latest report on the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow-up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK.

The major findings were that:
•Food insecurity is significant and growing in the UK, with levels among the worst in Europe, especially for children.
•Government has failed to recognise and respond domestically – and has allowed these issues to ‘fall between the cracks’.
•Government obesity strategy is silent on food insecurity.
•Minister for Hunger should be appointed to ensure cross-departmental action.

The report highlights the need to ensure Government cross-departmental understanding and action on hunger and implement strategies for improvement and monitor progress.

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said:

“The combination of high living costs, stagnating wages and often, the rollout of Universal Credit and the wider benefits system, means that levels of hunger in Britain are some of the highest across Europe. We found that nearly one in five children under 15 are living in a food insecure home – a scandal which cannot be allowed to continue.“

The report’s findings align with what Professor Martin Caraher and I have detailed in our recent book, The Economics of Emergency Food Aid Provision: A Financial, Social and Cultural Perspective.

We looked at the social cost of food aid and the cost of restoring dignity to those on benefits. We ask: Can we afford not to address this?

We know that 8.4 million (10.1%) people in Britain were living in households where adults reported food insecurity. However, UK/NI has no accepted indicator to measure food poverty. Instead, we generally rely on a proxy measure[2].

If we use shopping basket research, we see a mismatch between the cost of an emergency food parcel and a nutritiously adequate diet, a three-fold difference:

We also found that the charitable sector contributed approximately £9 million to feed our most vulnerable citizens at retail price levels.

It’s vital that the Government takes responsibility for feeding its citizens, and does not rely on the goodwill of charities.

Clearly urgent and significant action has to be taken, informed by the evidence. Motivated by the absence of an agreed measure by which to understand the extent of food poverty in the UK and Northern Ireland, we, at Ulster University Business School, conducted an online Food Affordability survey of nearly 1000 individuals between September and November 2018 to compare different food poverty measures.

Analysis is ongoing. but emerging results are presented below:
•One in twelve (8%) had a total household income (salary and benefits) of less than £10,000 and more than half (52.9%) had a household income of less than £39,999 each year.
•Two in five respondents (41.9%) had children aged under 18 years living in their households

EU-Survey on Income and Living Conditions (four food deprivation measures):
•One in three (34.4%) experienced at least one symptom of food deprivation (ie) couldn’t afford to eat meat, fish, poultry or vegetarian equivalent every second day; had a day in the last fortnight when they didn’t have a substantial meal due to lack of money; would like to have, but couldn’t afford, a roast joint (or its equivalent) once a week and/or would like to, but can’t afford to have family/friends around once a month for food/drinks.

Food Insecurity Experience Survey (eight-item scale):
•One in three, 35.7% (278/779) reported experiencing at least one food poverty symptom concerned with eating less healthy foods or skipping meals etc.

Household Food Security Scale Module (10-item adult measure; 8-item child measure):
•One in five (21.2%; 133/628) reported experiencing at least one food poverty symptom concerned with worry about running out of food or not eating enough.
•Even more worryingly, 79 households with children confirmed experiencing at least one food poverty symptom. To reduce the quantity of food they serve to their child(ren) is an indication of the extent of the food poverty experience in these households.

We need to also remember that the lived experience is vital in understanding how difficult it is to be food poor.

These are some of the human stories behind the statistics:

Food affordability is an issue

“I know my budget: sometimes ‘food’ is biscuits.”

Our vulnerable working poor: “Based on the last fortnight I have been able to afford meals but, as a working single parent, I worried about feeding my son over the summer and as a result couldn’t afford meals for myself. Food is fast becoming an issue for me and it is embarrassing to have to admit that despite working there are still times when you have to go hungry to support your child. You feel entirely responsible.”

“Embarrassed at not having money for basics, with both of us working.”

Reliance on food aid is a reality

“Food bank Friday.”

No room for complacency

“Because although money is tight in our house we budget so we make sure we always have enough money for food which may mean sacrificing other things, like treats, but feeding our children and ourselves is a priority.”

“ … at present our financial situation is uncomplicated. I fear for the future though.”

Disbelief that food poverty may exist in the UK

“It makes me feel terrible to think that some people living in this, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, may not have enough money to have a large meal, or to give gifts of food to their friends and extended family. It makes me feel sick to think about that.”

We know what’s needed – let’s get on and measure it

Our research supports the growing call for action and anticipated second reading of the Food Insecurity Measurement Bill. It is widely held that what gets measured gets mended.

Food poverty requires a long-term, sustainable solution that addresses the policy issues under focus: low income, under/unemployment, rising food prices and Welfare Reform, informed by routine, Government-supported monitoring and reporting of the extent of food poverty among our citizens.

Dr Sinéad Furey spends her time researching different aspects of food poverty defined as the inability “to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so”[1].

The research team comprised Dr Sinéad Furey (Ulster), Dr Chris McLaughlin (Institute of Technology, Sligo), Ms Emma Beacom (Ulster), Ms Ursula Quinn (Ulster) and Dr Dawn Surgenor (Ulster).

[1] Radimer, K.L.; Olson, C.M.; Campbell, C.C. (1990) Development of indicators to assess hunger. Journal of Nutrition 120, 1544–1548.

[2] EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (Food Deprivation Measures), deprivation measures, or Minimum Income Standards/Minimum Essential Standards of Living).
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputWebsite
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 7 Feb 2019


  • Food poverty
  • Measurement


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