Megan Blake explains how rich countries can have hungry households and introduces a means to climb out of food insecurity

Eradicating hunger is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. And while it seems reasonable to assume that, for wealthy nations, food insecurity might be negligible on the grounds that they can produce or import enough food, that assumption is not borne out by the new UK government’s Food Security Index.

The index includes measures of consumer confidence, production, investment, and trade that together demonstrate, on a national scale, the UK  can meet its food requirements. However, unequal income distribution, lack of local access, and various personal circumstances give rise to household food insecurity. 

In 2018 about 10% of the adult population of England were skipping meals or going without food.  By the summer/autumn of 2020 the rate was 16% and reached 24% by autumn 2022

On a household scale, food insecurity is the inability to have the food necessary to live a healthy life.  This understanding underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goal, but it is not included in the new UK index.  In the UK, one-in-four adults are classed as havIng low, or very low food security.  A large proportion will have children. People experiencing food insecurity  suffer impaired mental and physical health, which creates further demands on the public purse.

The rates of UK food insecurity have increased since before the pandemic. In 2018 about 10% of the adult population of England were skipping meals or going without food. [see box, Voices off]  By the summer/autumn of 2020 the rate was 16% and reached 24% by autumn 2022. 

Voices off
Conversations with people who are  struggling to get by reveal a mix of skipping meals; seeking immediate solutions to hunger; wrestling with priorities such as debt or rent;  and being afraid to leave their homes.

Lilly aged 55

“I skipped meals because my cupboards were bare.  Even if you’ve got a tin of beans then you can always have beans on toast, can’t you.” 

Liam in his 40s

“I just don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I’ve never been that person.  I’ve always been that upbeat sort of guy and I hate to think people are trying to offer me something.”

Randy in his 50s

“I used to make sure my daughter and wife got a meal.  I didn’t bother about what I had.  I had to pay my rent before getting food. I thought rent was more important than getting food.”

Gerald aged 38

 “I’ve kept away because there was an incident. He threatened me a bit.  I have seen him a few times since and he is always threatening me.  He lives in the area where I live and when I go out I am a bit on edge.”

In 2022, those who struggled most were adults living in the most deprived communities (40%), those on incomes below £32,000 a year (46%), and those who were not employed (45%). For those who earned more than £32,000 a year the rate more than doubled between 2020 and 2022. Data analysis also revealed that one-in-four adults in work were also food insecure, and the rate of increase for those in work was as high as the rate of growth for those out of work.

There are two ways we approach this problem. The first is by seeing this as an inability to afford food and the second is by adopting a social development model.

Traditional approaches, like food banks, adopt the affordability model and focus on immediate solutions to hunger. More recently, this has transitioned to a “cash first” approach, where cash payments are given to people so that they can purchase food. Sometimes this is a cash transfer and sometimes it is in the form of supermarket credit. This approach works for some.  When cost-of-living payments were provided, food banks reported a decline in use.  However, research also shows that food bank use is not a good indicator of food insecurity

People must still travel to access food because the availability of good food has not improved in the places where they live. Moreover, people use the supermarket credit to buy either more of what they have been used to, or treats.  They buy cans and other long shelf-life items because they can be saved for times when money is inevitably tight again.  And they purchase treats to comfort themselves and to show love and care to their loved ones. We saw this in the pandemic with free school meal vouchers.

Diagram of a good food system.

Cash transfers can also go toward other priorities, such as debt or rent, rather than food. Job prospects and income in the long term are not improved.

social development model, recognises struggle as a lack of resources such as  food skills and knowledge, social connections, physical health, and mental wellbeing as well as money. These factors deteriorate as food insecurity increases. As financial worries intensify, diets narrow to include only those foods that fill the stomach and are frequently highly processed.  This food contributes to diet-related ill health and as health deteriorates, people’s ability to travel to the shops and carry home groceries declines. Poor health also impacts people’s ability to cook food because the strength needed to stand at a cooker or lift a heavy pan is undermined.  It also curbs the ability to work.

Poverty and deprivation affect not only people but also the places where they live. It hollows out community resources such as the availability of healthy food, collective food knowledge, and social infrastructures that build resilience.  Within these contexts, people make choices about the food they eat.  Food insecurity undermines social connections so people become isolated and afraid to leave their homes. This also impacts their ability to access food because they avoid going out. To address poverty, we also need to repair the places where people live by improving the resources and infrastructures that are available in those places.  By reconnecting people to each other, resilience is built, and knowledge is shared.

Food Ladders are now being used by trusts and foundations across the UK to inform funding decisions. Councils are using them to shape their food strategies. They are also used within local communities

Food Ladders

One example of the social development model is a community-based strategy that works alongside efforts to increase the availability of jobs that provide a living wage and adequate benefits for those out of work. This Food Ladders approach aims to build resilience and long-term solutions. It  emphasises food’s social and cultural aspects as well as its  nutritional value. And it encourages communities to unite, share resources, and build skills to improve food security (see box, Rungs of the ladder).

Rungs of the ladder
Food Ladders bring three levels of support: Catching those in crisis; Capacity for those struggling to avoid crisis; and Empowerment to create lasting stability.

Catching

This first rung provides immediate support for those who need it. It might involve emergency food parcels, mental health support, or referrals to social services.

Capacity building

This rung focuses on helping people whose need isn’t yet  critically urgent but who may struggle to afford or otherwise access good food. It can include shared cooking and eating, food clubs with a sound variety of healthy options and additional support. Voucher schemes can also be included to help increase food knowledge through food talk, particularly when they link to local food outlets.  Evidence from the Fresh Street place-based voucher scheme shows that it helps stabilise markets in places by supporting a consistent demand for fruit and vegetables.

Empowerment

This top rung aims to create a more sustainable food system within the community. It might involve community gardens, urban agriculture projects or cooperative activity to increase access to affordable, healthy food options in the local area. These operate alongside and intersect with the established commercial supply chain to create a more diverse food system to overcome situations when a pure market produces perverse outcomes, such as the overconsumption of highly-processed foods.

Food Ladders are now being used by trusts and foundations across the UK to inform funding decisions. Councils are using them to shape their food strategies. They are also used within local communities. A local authority public health officer who got involved in food insecurity work during the pandemic said: “ The Food Ladder use has come as a legacy to that work, as we understood that people couldn’t just get on with free food on a regular basis.  We started to look for what might help people to be more independent and what the process might be.  We came across the food ladders research and embedded it in our food security tool kit. It has shifted our thinking and helped us move away from emergency support.”

Megan Blake

Megan is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. She has more than 25 years of experience conducting primary research and analysis on social innovation, community …

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