How many children and adults are going hungry?
The Food Standards Agency’s working definition of food poverty is ‘where the constraints are such that it is not possible for individuals or households to consume a nutritionally adequate diet, they could be considered to be in food poverty.’ This is where an individual or households isn’t able to obtain healthy, nutritious food, or can’t access the food they would like to eat – forcing people to eat what they can afford rather than what they want. Some commentators draw on Peter Townsend’s concept of relative poverty in defining food poverty beyond these nutritional concepts to ‘the social functions that eating serves i.e., being able to modestly eat out once in a while, have friends over to eat or celebrate special occasions.’
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food insecurity as ‘a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. It may be caused by unavailability of food, insufficient purchasing power, inappropriate distribution or inadequate use of food at the household level…Food insecurity may be chronic, seasonal or transitory.’
According to UNICEF, in 2017, 10% of children in the UK were reported to be living in households affected by severe food insecurity [defined by UNICEF as ‘experiencing hunger’]. According to figures published by End Hunger UK, in January 2018 16% of adults in Great Britain either skipped or saw someone else in their household skip meals; 14% of adults worried about not having enough food to eat; and 8% of adults had gone a whole day without eating because of a lack of money during the last 12 months. Parents whose children were aged 18 and under were found to be particularly food insecure, with 23% either skipping or seeing someone in their household skipping a meal due to a lack of money; 23% worried about not having enough food to eat; and 13% had gone without eating for a whole day in the last 12 months. Parents with primary school-age children (aged 5-11 years) fared even worse: with 27% either skipping or seeing someone in their household skipping meals to make ends meet.
“I work—two jobs—and my husband works full-time. We should be able to afford good, nutritious food. We should be able to afford food. The reality, though, is multiple days when dinner has been a tin of chopped tomatoes, some value dried mixed herbs, and 20p pasta; we have to regularly feed our family on around £1.50 for the entire meal—not per head. By the time our rent is paid, money put on the gas and electric keys, the bills paid…there’s nothing left. We drink water, we eat the cheapest food, but we struggle to afford even that.”
“It [Christmas] was a festival of all the things we couldn’t have. Adverts on telly show families spending loads of money and you’re just bombarded with it everywhere you go – this faux festivity and cheer. My worst year, I didn’t have a tree, didn’t have any decorations, I couldn’t buy any presents, I had unplugged the fridge, turned the heating off, taken out the light bulbs…I sent my son to his father’s for Christmas and I just sat on my own and got drunk on cheap lager on the couch and didn’t tell anyone.”
According to academics at Northumbria University, holiday hunger is a ‘condition that occurs when a child's household is, or will, become food insecure during the school holidays.’ When there is no school there is no Free School Meals (FSMs). Eligibility for Free School Meals (FSMs) extends to all children in England and Scotland who are in Year 2 and below. For pupils in other years FSMs is means tested. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in April 2018, there were some one million children receiving means tested FSMs, with two-thirds of these children living in the lowest income fifth of households with children. A change to the rules governing FSMs led by the Department for Education (DfE) is now taking place due to the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). The IFS estimates that this will lead some 210,000 extra children will be eligible for FSMs after the rollout of UC. However, 160,000 children who are currently entitled to FSMs will lose out under the new system – meaning an overall increase of 4% or some 50,000 pupils in receipt of FSMs. In many cases, school dinners can be the main source of nutrition for children and young people living in low income households.
Research by Feeding Britain suggests 3 million children are at risk of hunger during school holidays; and that the loss of FSMs during the holidays costs a family, on average, £30.00-£40.00 per week. Work in Glasgow by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has highlighted some of the cost pressures facing families during holiday periods – with many parents reporting falling into debt or borrowing money to pay for heating, eating and uniform for new the new school term.
A survey funded by Kellogg’s found more than six out of ten parents with household incomes of less than £25,000 said they were not always able to afford to buy food outside of term time [this figure increased to 73% for parents on incomes of less than £15,000]; and that one-third of parents had skipped a meal during the school holidays so that their children could eat.
No parent cuts out meals for themselves or their children through choice; they do so because they have no choice. But it is difficult to tell how many children and adults have hunger as a constant companion because there is no standard measures or data collection for measuring this across the UK.
The FAO, for example uses the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) to measure food insecurity through people’s experiences. The FIES asks individual respondents for themselves or their household as a whole during the last 12 months is there a time when – because of lack of money or other resources – they: (1) were worried they would not have enough food to eat; (2) were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food; (3) ate only a few kinds of foods; (4) had to skip a meal; (5) ate less than they thought they should; (6) ran out of food; (7) were hungry but did not eat; and (8) went without eating for a whole day? Responses to these eight questions are then transposed onto a scale from mild food insecurity (i.e., worrying about the ability to obtain food); through to moderate food insecurity (i.e., reducing quantities, skipping meals) and severe food insecurity (i.e., experiencing hunger).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) collates data and information on ‘hunger’, ‘food security’ and ‘food insecurity’ as part of Government attempts to identify the economic and social factors that may lead to hunger.
When it launched new research into destitution in 2018, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) described what it means to go hungry. By ‘destitute’ the researchers asked respondents if they, or their children, had lacked two or more of the following six essentials over the past month because they could not afford them: (i) shelter, (ii) food, (iii) heating, (iv) lighting, (v) clothing and footwear and/or (vi) basic toiletries.
How can we draw on some of these definitions and measures to develop some baseline data (and ongoing information) about children and adults experiencing hunger, on the verge of hunger, and at risk of hunger (including the nutritional and social functions of food) across the UK?
Why are people hungry - what is causing household food budgets to become so restricted?
The report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on hunger in the United Kingdom ‘a strategy for zero hunger’ describes how:
“something fundamental is happening in advanced Western economies which throws into doubt the effectiveness of a national minimum below which no one is allowed to fall. It is the erosion of an effective national minimum that has led to the existence of hunger and the rise of the food bank movement in its wake” (page 9).
The report illuminates the multifaceted reasons for hunger. These include: a reduction in real wages; benefits levels and changes (delays/errors in processing claims, benefit sanctions); juggling the budget for food, housing and utilities (which for some people means going without food in order to avoid becoming homeless or the utilities being turned off); people being overwhelmed by a sudden budgetary crisis; and/or the absence of FSMs. The APPG also identified some underpinning reasons including the size of debt which many families are struggling with and addiction (including addiction funded by debt).
A Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) carried out for Defra back in 2014 asked food aid organisations who accesses their support and why. Food aid organisations identified immediate problems such as a sudden reduction in household income (job losses or benefits payments) as well as ongoing circumstances (continual low household income and indebtedness). The REA also revealed how people who struggle to manage their food needs adopt a variety of strategies to avoid having to ask for food help (e.g. cutting back, changing eating and shopping habits, juggling budgets, turning to family and friends). When they do turn to food aid – often as a very last resort – they are likely to draw upon as much assistance (food and non-food support) as they possibly can.
More recently, in January 2018, the APPG on Hunger published its report into the ‘hidden’ problem of elderly hunger in the UK. This revealed more than 1 million older people at risk of malnutrition caused by social isolation (e.g. due to bereavement, illness, immobility or loss of driving licence) and cuts to public services. The report found malnutrition costs the NHS approximately £12-13 billion a year and this is being exacerbated by reductions in social care packages, cuts to meals on wheels services and local shop closures.
‘Food aid’ is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of large and small scale local activities aimed at helping people to meet their food needs, often on a short term basis (during crisis or immediate difficulty).
Food banks are one example of food aid. Foodbanks in the UK are typically run by charities, community groups, voluntary sector organisations and faith groups. People are usually referred to a food bank from an agency or body such as Citizens Advice, Jobcentre Plus, GP, social worker or school from whom they receive a voucher to take to a food bank where they receive 3 days’ worth of food.
Since February 2017 the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has been mapping the number of independent foodbanks outside of those operated by the Trussell Trust. So far, researchers at the IFAN have identified 801 independent foodbanks. This equates to 39.3% of the total number of UK food banks, with the Trussell Trust’s network currently extending to some 1,235 foodbanks.
Between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, Trussell Trust foodbanks provided 1,332,952 people with three-day emergency food supplies – a 13% increase on the previous year. Some 484,026 of these emergency food supplies went to children – whose foodbank use increased 6% on the previous year. The top four reasons for referral to one of the Trussell Trust’s foodbanks were: being on a low income (28% of referrals), a delay in benefits (24%), changes in benefits (18%) and debt (9%).
An animation, ‘Hunger by the Sea’, made by Bournemouth University contains first-hand accounts from people accessing support from a foodbank. The foodbank used to develop the animation was situated by the sea and this was used to produce images to accompany participant’s narratives about how they are struggling to keep their heads above water. The Trussell Trust also provides narratives of people using its foodbanks.
The UK Government does not collect data on the number of foodbanks in operation, the number of people accessing them and the circumstances that lead them to do so. This would undoubtedly build a fuller picture about the ‘national minimum’ below which people should not be allowed to fall.
How many people are hungry in rural areas – and how many people are struggling to access healthy and affordable food?
An Evidence Review for the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger looked at the extent and geographical spread of hunger and food poverty. The review included a section on ‘rural hardship’ which identified several factors which may worsen the ability of low-income households in rural and coastal areas to be able to afford food. These factors included: struggling with the higher costs of heating their homes, higher costs of transport, distance to work or Jobcentre Plus and low-paid and seasonal employment. Evidence submitted to the review found some rural residents were living some distance from lower-cost supermarkets and could not afford the bus fare to travel to town to shop. The insecure and short-term patterns of employment in some rural areas led some residents to not be able to accrue savings or resources to provide resilience during difficult times; and how property costs are higher and comprise proportionately more of the family income which means families can be more vulnerable to shocks in their household budget.
Food deserts are defined in the US as ‘parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.’
A report published by the Social Market Foundation in October 2018 found about three-quarters (76%) of food deserts in England and Wales were in urban areas, with the remaining 24% in rural areas. While a quarter (24%) of urban super output areas are “food oases”; this is the case for 7% of rural super output areas. Overall, 95% of food oases are in urban areas and 5% in rural areas. Rural areas were found to have more restricted choice of food stores than urban areas; and for rural residents without access to a car, or with restricted mobility, accessing a range of food stores in a rural area was a challenge.
Much is written about what happens when a supermarket opens up in an area but less is written about the consequences when a supermarket closes – particularly in a rural area which can lead to a reduction in the local community’s access to fresh food.
Defra’s Statistical Digest of Rural England (December 2018) monitors ‘accessibility to key services’ by looking at the time taken to travel from a rural place to a service location. Generally, people living in rural settlements have lower overall levels of accessibility to key services compared with people living in urban places – with people living in sparse rural settings having the lowest overall accessibility. For travel by public transport, the average number of key service locations accessible to people living in rural areas is highest for primary schools and food stores, with 9 available within a 60 minute journey time.
Approximately 28% of UK food banks are located in rural areas, but their distribution varies across different rural districts. Even where there is a foodbank in a rural area some remote residents may struggle to access it (or get a referral from an agency) because of the distance and cost of transport. Research has further highlighted how the stigma often associated with using foodbanks can take on additional prevalence in rural areas where this is often a strong ethos of ‘making do’.
Back in 2015 Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Carolyn Snell investigated the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma in rural areas, interviewing clients from Trussell Trust foodbanks in Cornwall. The report’s findings suggest neither fuel nor food is sacrificed for the other, but instead those with the lowest income ration both. The quantity and quality of food is reduced, whilst the use of fuel for cooking and lighting is often prioritised over warmth.
Is it possible to collect data on the number of foodbanks in operation, the number of people accessing them (or not able to access them) and the circumstances that lead them to do so?
Importantly, is it also possible to map sources of ‘affordable’ and healthy food in rural areas – not only taking into account distance to a food store and number of stores available in a given area; but then overlaying this information with other indicators such as average household income, deprivation and availability of public transport?
What is being done to address hunger?
In March 2018 the Government announced a £2 million ‘Holiday Activities and Food Programme’ for new and existing holiday clubs to explore how to help disadvantaged children benefit from healthy meals and enriching activities. In November 2018, the DfE published management information about the children and young people attending the holiday clubs. This revealed, of the seven organisations funded by the DfE to provide healthy food and enriching activities, 18,200 children and young people had received support.
Holiday clubs provide free meals and activities during the school holidays for children who may otherwise go without and are often operated by charities, community groups, youth groups or Local Authorities. In 2017, the estimated 593 clubs across the UK provided over 190,000 meals to more than 22,000 children and young people during the summer holidays and October half-term. But their geographical coverage is patchy which means they are not reaching all the children who need help during the holidays.
Under the strapline ‘no child too hungry to learn’, Magic Breakfast provides breakfast food and expert support to schools. The DfE provided funding to Magic Breakfast to support schools to set up and run breakfast clubs in schools with over 35% of the pupils eligible for FSMs which had no existing breakfast club. The evaluation of the scheme found the delivery model worked well – with 184 schools recruited and 96% of schools continuing to provide a breakfast club after Magic Breakfast’s contract with the DfE ended. As well as reducing hunger, breakfast clubs were perceived to improve concentration and behaviour in class and to improve punctuality for some pupils. In March 2018 the DfE announced £26 million [funded through the soft drinks industry levy] towards a National School Breakfast Programme. To be delivered by Family Action in partnership with Magic Breakfast, the Programme aims to help improve breakfast for pupils in more than 1,700 schools by 2020. In addition to providing the National School Breakfast Programme, Magic Breakfast is continuing to provide nutritious breakfasts to more than 31,500 children during school term time. In the 2017-2018 academic year, Magic Breakfast provided 2,884,512 bagels, 2,016,727 bowls of cereal, 1,765,446 glasses of juice and 242,705 bowls of porridge.
The Healthy Start Scheme is Government funded and provides vouchers for pregnant women or parents with children under the age of four years on benefits for them to spend on healthy foodstuffs such as milk, fruit and vegetables.
Other non-Government initiatives include Fare Share’s, the UK’s largest food charity, campaign ‘feed people first’ which is working with manufacturers, processors, packers and retailers so that surplus food can be collected by local charities. Many foodbanks have joined the ‘more than food programme’, becoming community hubs and providing people with support people tackle debt and financial issues, get through and out of fuel poverty and providing holiday clubs for children when FSMs are not available.
What more can be done?
The Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty looked at how a fairer food system could be built that works better for people on low incomes. The Commission’s recommendations included a new cross-department minister with responsibility for eliminating household food insecurity in the UK; action to reduce acute household food insecurity caused by sanctions, delays and errors in the benefits system; an inquiry to remove poverty premiums for key living costs such as food, utilities, housing, household appliances and transport; and called for Local Authorities to establish food access plans that address physical barriers to affordable, nutritious food in their area.
Other organisations are also calling for a coordinated Government strategy to tackle household food poverty and food insecurity (e.g. End Hunger UK, Feeding Britain, Church Action on Poverty and partners).
The Poverty and Inequality Commission was tasked with looking at the Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018-2022 by the Scottish Government. The Commission’s recommendations included: that the Scottish Government introduce an additional cash benefit during school holiday periods that at least matches the equivalent costs of school meals; that the Scottish Government and Local Authorities should work together to take a strategic approach to funding a package of school holiday support that address the full range of pressures faced by low income families; and that existing holiday club provision should be used to provide food as a core element of their work.
Much of this work draws attention to some of the themes outlined above – particularly in calling for more government leadership [e.g. strategy, data, welfare reforms]; recognising the important work undertaken by local, regional and national charitable (food) organisations; and helping people to earn a decent wage. In addition to this strategic approach; another strand of work is seeking to encourage people who are struggling with food insecurity to feel more able to seek assistance without the stigma of shame or failure. This strand recognises the assets and resources that communities already have and how these might be built upon.
What more can be done to support people in rural communities? We need to listen to people with first-hand experience of hunger in our rural communities and use these experiences to provide immediate and longer-term support. this means we shouldn’t just focus on food (nutrition and social functions) but should be much more holistic and wide ranging (e.g. work/wages, social inclusion etc.) No one should have hunger as their constant companion. As Sir Winston Churchill (1943) reminds us ‘healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.’
Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes evaluating two veteran support projects (in Cornwall and North Yorkshire); supporting public sector bodies to measure social value; evaluating a hospital avoidance service; and undertaking a piece of work on migration.
She is also a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Rural Health and Care. In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association.
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