What is Hunger in the United Kingdom?

What is Hunger in the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom has seen rising levels of hunger over the past 10 years. And despite being in the top five wealthiest countries in the world, demand for food aid was rising even before 2020, but it’s estimated that 15% of families with children have struggled to afford a decent diet since the pandemic began. Food charities have struggled to cope and have increasingly called for government intervention. But the problem is still poorly understood. To help us understand food insecurity and hunger in the UK, who it affects, what’s causing it and what’s being done about it – we’ve invited policy and international relations researcher Hannah Lambie-Mumford from the University of Sheffield and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. Over the last decade, she has studied the rise of food charity and the right to food in the UK and other European countries.

Host: Charlie Spring, Postdoctoral Researcher

Guest: Hannah Lambie-Mumford, University of Sheffield and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute

Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center

Interview Transcript

Your book Hungry Britain charted the rapid rise of food charity in the UK. And the phenomenon of what’s often described as food poverty in Britain. But even just 10 years ago very few British people had even heard of food poverty or food insecurity. Can you please explain to us what these terms mean?

Absolutely. So all these terms relate to the idea of limited insecure access to food due to financial resource constraints. Food poverty as a term probably has the longest history of describing this issue in the UK. Household food insecurity in comparison, has become more widely used by policy makers or policy focused researchers. But there is still a tendency particularly in the policy sphere for food security as an idea to still be seen as an issue of supply. So there’s still very much a range of ways in which we talk about this issue in the UK. One of the interesting things to note when we talk about food insecurity and food poverty in a European context is to be wary of the terms in relation to how they are translated. So in our recent book on food charity in Europe, we talk about how the term food insecurity doesn’t always translate in terms of financial resource constraints and insecure access to food but actually can translate as food safety. And so it doesn’t always travel that well compared to food poverty as a term. In the UK, the press and the public debate has also used the word hunger increasingly over the sort of last 10 years or so. And there have been powerful anti-hunger campaigns based on phrasing around hunger such as the “End Hunger” UK campaign, which has formed between 14 national charities and organizations and faith groups campaigning against hunger specifically framed in that way.

Thanks Hannah, for laying out those basic definitions. Particularly interesting to hear that the term food insecurity might not translate very well in the European context, but having read out those definitions what do we know about the extent of the problem in the UK?

Absolutely. So the issue of measurement of household food insecurity in the UK is a really interesting one. And for many years, we have not had any systematic measure. In fact, the first government measure of national household food insecurity statistics were not collected until 2019 and first reported just the other month. So for most of this time we have relied quite heavily on figures from food banks and other food charities to give us some kind of indication. The Trussell Trust is the only national network of food banks in the UK and their statistics have been relied on heavily over the last 10 years. And as we know, and your listeners will know that these are really poor proxy statistics for household food insecurity but they did draw significant attention particularly following the rise of Trussell Trust food provision in the years following 2011 and 2012 when their provision rose very sharply. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) who is England and Northern Ireland and Wales’ food safety regulator actually did introduce a household food insecurity measurement to their food and use survey back in 2016. So this was one of the first government measures, but as I said the FSA operate in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. So don’t cover the whole of the UK but their first round of results did show that 13% of adults were only marginally food secure in 2016 and 8% had low or very low food security. Since then the FSA have continued to collect this data and other organizations, most notably The Food Foundation have collected their own food security surveys at various points. So the 2019 government statistics warned that levels of marginal household food security were at 6% , that 4% had low household food security, and that 4% of households had very low food security. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK and the first national lockdown, which began in late March 2020 , food insecurity was estimated through a Food Foundation survey to have quadrupled since before the pandemic. So statistics that were analyzed by Rachel Loops from Kings College London showed that 16.2% of adults that were surveyed reported experiences of food insecurity since Great Britain went into the official lockdown and an additional 21.6% of adults reported feeling very worried or fairly worried about getting the food they need during the COVID-19 outbreak. And what we know about people who were more likely to experience food insecurity over this time during the outbreak these are consistent with national monitoring data on food insecurity. So groups at risk of poverty were at risk of food insecurity at this time. Groups that were particularly at risk included adults who are unemployed adults with disabilities, adults with children and black and ethnic minority groups. Self isolation, and the lack of food and shops in the early weeks of the lockdown in March 2020, obviously layered on an additional risk of household food insecurity for these groups as well at that time.

So you’ve mentioned that household food insecurity often tracks on to groups who are particularly at risk of poverty, but what generally do we know about the causes of household food insecurity in the UK from the research that you’ve done over the past decade?

I’m going to focus here on the structural drivers of household food insecurity and what we know about some of those in the UK and how they’ve changed, particularly over the last decade, as you’ve mentioned. So what we’re talking about here is factors that affect access to the food that is available to people locally and particularly factors that might impact people’s income. So whether that income is secure, whether that income is sufficient. And one of the key factors that has shifted in particular in the UK in the last 10 years there’s been changes to the structure of our welfare state the implementation of significant changes to social security and the introduction of a program called universal credit through which social security is paid. The entitlement levels of social security have changed significantly. And they changed after 2012 and many pieces of research which have been published since that time have highlighted the significant factor that these changing entitlement levels and processes of obtaining social security and other restrictions around social security have had on uptake of need for food banks. So these reforms to welfare were significant. Some of the biggest changes that we’ve actually seen to the welfare state in the UK since it was first invented all those years ago. And we’ve seen particularly in the relationship between welfare reform and food bank use reduce generosity in terms of what people are entitled to and how much they can receive through social security and also increased conditionality. So here we’ve seen where people get benefit paused or suspended and other kind of administrative elements which affect people’s entitlements and the money that they can receive. And many pieces of research since then have shown that there are important links between key interventions in this space, particularly around what’s called sanctioning of people’s social security has paused for a period of time. And also with the introduction of universal credit there is something called a five week wait where people have to wait in order to receive their first payments through the system, which can cause people incredibly difficult financial circumstances.

Given what we know about systemic causes of food poverty what have been the primary responses to the problem in the UK?

What’s really interesting about doing this interview now is obviously I’ve been researching this phenomenon for 10 years and it’s changed significantly over this time. And the way I would answer this question now is obviously very different from 10 years ago. So thought it would be useful just to talk a little bit about how things have changed. So the key responses we have to household food insecurity in the UK include in-kind food assistance as well as emergency income support. Food banks have become probably the most prominent and visible charitable food assistance support since the 2010s, I would say. And the form of that is driven significantly by the rise of an organization called The Trussell Trust and their food bank network. They were the first and they remain the only UK wide network of food bank providers in the UK. And they grew particularly fast after the 2011, 2012 year and the changes to welfare reform and other kind of austerity measures started to kick in. And whilst they refer to themselves as food banks many other countries wouldn’t recognize them as such in so far as originally when they were set up the idea was that they would collect food donations locally store food locally, and distribute them to local people in need. So it was a kind of local cycle of identifying where support was needed and providing that support with food locally. So facilitating of help your neighbor with food idea.

Your listeners from other countries will know that’s very different from how the term food bank is used in many other countries across Europe and also North America as well where the food bank is more usually recognized as a kind of mid-layer or intermediary organization between donators, donations, and projects that provide food on the ground. So there are food banks, the way food bank is used in the UK often now refers mostly to actual direct providers of food parcels as well. And that’s another key kind of distinction within the broader food charity landscape in the UK compared to say, for example soup kitchens or soup rooms or meal programs. And recent estimates of the levels of food parcel providers in the UK are somewhere below 3000. So the independent food aid network is a network of food aid organizations, and they represent 500 or so independent food banks, but they’re really prominent in collecting data on food banks and food aid organizations across the UK and their recent work shows that in addition to their 500, they’ve identified another just over 1000 independent projects. And that’s in addition to the 1300 or so Trussell Trust projects. So that comes to about 2,800 food parcel providers. I can’t stress enough what a significant rise that is in a decade. When I first published my first Trussell Trust report there were 58 Trussell Trust food banks or something like that in 2011. So this is a phenomenal increase. And of course this doesn’t capture all of the projects in existence or the particularly informal projects. And won’t capture some of the projects that have arisen over the COVID period as well.

We do have an organization in the UK which some of your listeners would recognize more as a food bank as a kind of intermediary and redistribution organization and they’re called Fair Share and they are a member of the global food banking network, I believe as well. So they do fit that model. Traditionally, they have redistributed food, more to community based projects that provide meals and others and not so much food banks. Although particularly over COVID that shifted, and it will be interesting to see what kind of longer term implications for their kind of support of food parcel projects, but beyond the food bank food assistance provision for the UK is made up of four countries, evolved nation governments as well have particularly important roles to play in social security provision. The four countries have different emergency payment systems in operations or income crises in operation across those countries, We have the Scottish Welfare Fund which is an emergency payment scheme in Scotland, the Discretionary Assistance Fund, which operates in Wales the Short-Term Living Expenses Grant which operates in Northern Ireland and in England there is not a national system such as the others have. However, the Department for Work and Pensions in London funds local authorities to run local welfare assistance schemes. But that data is not as readily available as for the others. But those kinds of schemes do play a role in where people can turn to for support for income crises. And also some of the campaigns that are ongoing at the moment do play an important role where the emphasis is to move towards income maximization rather than the provision of food. So where there’s a so-called cash first emphasis. And we’re seeing that particularly prominently in Scotland at the moment wrapped up in questions of the right to food and campaigns based in that way.


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