A recently published All Party Parliamentary report warns that food insecurity in the UK is here to stay until effective action is taken. Dr Kingsley Purdam, Elisabeth Garratt and Professor Aneez Esmail explain why.
More than half a million people in the UK are reliant on food aid, according to Church Action on Poverty. This is a public health emergency in the making, and one recently addressed by a government-convened All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty. The Inquiry concluded that without effective intervention including in relation to the responsibilities of the state and also citizens themselves, hunger in the UK is here to stay.
Our research examined food insecurity in terms of malnutrition and food poverty. Under-nutrition is a deficiency in protein, energy or micronutrients. It can lead to poorer health outcomes, delays in recovery from illness, longer hospital stays and is associated with slower development and lower educational performance in children.
Evidence from the National Nutrition Screening Survey suggests that more than three million individuals are at risk of malnutrition in the UK and 29% of adults have been identified as affected by malnutrition on admission to hospital. It is estimated that £13bn is spent on disease-related malnutrition each year in the UK.
Food poverty is defined as being unable to afford or access a sufficient supply of adequate food for a healthy diet. An estimated 4.7 million people in the UK live in food poverty, having no choice but to spend 10% or more of their household income on food.
The number of food banks has risen sharply in recent years and the Trussell Trust (the Christian social action charity that runs the UK’s largest food bank network) estimated that in 2014 the number of people using their food banks exceeded one million. These figures do not include the many independent food banks and informal sources of food aid that often go undocumented, including food sharing and lunch clubs. Reasons for the increase in food banks are disputed. Explanations include welfare reform, delays in paying benefits and the recession. But some political commentators have accused food bank users of being “opportunists”, who “don’t know how to cook”, “can’t budget”, “live like animals” and ‘spend their money on tattoos’.
Evidence from the Citizens Advice Bureau from over 600 food bank referrals found that 36% were a result of a delay in benefit payments, while the Trussell Trust reported that benefit delays and benefit changes accounted for 48% of food bank referrals.
The initial findings of our scoping study suggest that substantial numbers of people in the UK are constrained in their food choices and are skipping meals – often to prioritise their families. The 2012 Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey found that over a quarter of people had cut down on their food so that dependents “have enough to eat”. Some 7% of those aged 50 and over told the 2010 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing that “too little money stops them buying their first choice of food items”. Evidence from the 2012 Health Survey for England found that 2% of adults in England had a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5 (kg/m2) and would be classified as at risk of malnutrition.
In our case studies of food banks, users displayed an awareness of their financial choices and many were reluctant to seek food aid. Many skipped meals to feed their families. As one food bank user stated: “It throws your pride out of the window…I am doing it for my kids, I am not going to make my kids suffer just because of my pride.” (Female, aged 34). A father of two children said: “I was nervous coming here, I thought I had done something wrong… having to ask for food, your ego takes a battering.” (Male, aged 40). We also found that some older people were unable to visit the food bank themselves and were having food parcels delivered by volunteers or other food bank users. One older food bank user stated: “I buy the reduced bread in the supermarket and freeze it. It’s alright. I go to my daughter’s to get extra food. Most of my pension goes on fuel to keep warm…I’ve got to keep warm. I run out of money towards the end of the week” (Female, aged 65).
Whilst many food bank users were in acute need, for others the food parcel was a top-up and used to balance other spending as part of their budgeting. Fixed costs – including transport to work and mobile phones that are needed to contact family, employers, or job agencies – needed to be planned for.
In the UK food banks are a graphic representation of need, inequality and the impact of the economic recession on vulnerable individuals. The importance of food goes beyond nutrition and is related to identity, the sense of home and is a key part of family life. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has argued that food banks offer an insight into the extent of marginalisation in a society. There has been a normalization of food aid in the UK, with food banks on many high streets and food donation points in supermarkets. This is despite the UK Government’s commitment to the right of citizens to adequate food under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Food poverty and the need to visit a food bank can be a temporary problem, but food insecurity is more complex than this and is part of the bigger challenge of long-term financial vulnerability. There are important questions to address about why the levels of malnutrition and food insecurity are so high in the UK and whether a reliance on local food aid is economically efficient, given its impact on people’s well-being and the longer-term costs to the public purse.
The political and media language of blame used to describe people using food banks also seems a long way from the day-to-day reality of food insecurity in the UK.
The food insecurity, nutritional deficiency and older people in the UK scoping study is being conducted by the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA), with support from Manchester City Council, Food@Manchester and the HEIF Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Hub Project. Final research findings will be published in Spring, 2015.
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