Is food insecurity rising in the UK?


The well-publicised growth in the number of people using foodbanks has served to establish food insecurity as a critical social policy issue facing the UK. Debates have considered whether this reported growth reflects genuine need, or whether data on the number of food parcels distributed by foodbanks capture an underlying problem that has only recently gained prominence. Answering this question is important to determine whether – and in what form – government should intervene. To date, despite a considerable body of research on UK food insecurity and foodbank use, the Government has issued no policy response.

The loudest proponents of a growth in food insecurity are the Trussell Trust, who are the UK’s largest foodbank network and the only organisation to routinely monitor the distribution of emergency food parcels. Figure 1 shows that the number of food parcels distributed by the Trussell trust has risen progressively since 2008/09 and escalated from 2011/12 onwards. While unquestionably powerful, these data are however of limited use in estimating changes over time because the foodbank network has also expanded in recent years. We also know that contrary to what some MPs and commentators argue, people are reluctant to seek food aid, and report feelings of embarrassment and stigma at needing charity donations to provide their basic needs. This means that foodbank data will almost certainly underestimate the level of food insecurity in Britain. Helpfully, information from other sources are increasingly available to offer a broader and potentially more reliable insight into the topic. These data also have their limitations, but combining information on foodbank use and broader measures of food insecurity can offer a more reliable picture of the current UK situation than can be gleaned from a single source.

 

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Figure 1: The number of three-day emergency food supplies distributed by Trussell Trust foodbanks rose considerably between 2008/09 and 2015/16. Source: Trussell Trust

The growth of the Trussell Trust foodbank network does not mean that parallel growth in uptake of emergency food should be entirely discounted. Evidence submitted to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK testified that existing foodbanks have become busier, demonstrating that rising uptake cannot be attributed solely to increased supply. Another way that foodbank data do reliably point to rising need are reports linking policy changes to uptake of emergency food. Between 2010 and 2013, Trussell Trust foodbanks distributed more emergency food in areas that experienced larger welfare cuts and more benefit sanctions, and foodbank use is concentrated in highly disadvantaged areas. Likewise, a 2013 survey by the Citizens Advice Bureau found that 16 per cent of foodbank referrals were due to benefit sanctions. This is telling because sanctions – the withholding of benefit payments for a fixed period due to non-compliance by benefit recipients – also grew substantially in the wake of the 2012 welfare reform. Taken together, this evidence strongly suggests that government policies are being felt on the ground, and strengthens the evidence for growing food insecurity.

Survey data are able to provide a more inclusive insight into current experiences of food insecurity. The proportion of UK households who were unable to afford meat, chicken or fish every other day – an imperfect but widely used proxy measure of food insecurity – more than doubled from 3.6 per cent in 2007 to 8.8 per cent in 2011. This pattern is reinforced by the Breadline Britain survey, which reported a more modest rise on this measure, from 2 to 5 per cent between 1999 and 2012. Widespread difficulties are also revealed by a 2012 survey, which found that half of London school staff reported children not eating breakfast because their families could not afford it, and 61 per cent said they have given food to pupils at their own expense.

 

Figure 2: Trends in food insecurity, 2002-2015, Sources: Trussell Trust, FareShare, English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

Figure 2: Trends in food insecurity, 2002-2015. Sources: Trussell Trust, FareShare, English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

In our new briefing note, we combine data from a range of sources to gauge overall trends in food insecurity. Figure 2 shows that while measures of Trussell Trust food parcels and meals provided by FareShare grew more steeply than rises in food insecurity measured using survey data, all sources point to the same pattern of growth in food insecurity in contemporary Britain. It is however more difficult to identify the scale of this increase with any certainty. The absence of regular monitoring by government (a request that has been widely made but not – yet – implemented) means that we cannot be sure about the magnitude of the increase in food insecurity. While the proportion of people affected may sound quite small, taken together, all the available evidence points in the same direction – that food insecurity has been increasing in Britain.

 

You can read more in our new briefing note here: CSI 28: Food insecurity and foodbank use

Post by Elisabeth Garratt, 2nd November 2016.