Call for Evidence – Food Security

Dr Rounaq Nayak, Bournemouth University

Professor Heather Hartwell, Bournemouth University

Dr Jeffery Bray, Bournemouth University

Written evidence submitted by Rounaq Nayak, Heather Hartwell and Jeffery Bray, on behalf of Bournemouth University, to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee’s call for evidence into food security on 30 September 2022 (FS0008)

A research team led by Dr Nayak recently completed an exploratory study, funded by Bournemouth University, investigating the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on food security within households accessing food banks and community social supermarkets in the UK. Evidence generated from the study highlighted the impact of increasing food prices on the four dimensions of food security: food access, food utilisation, food stability and food availability, as well as its impact on mental health, wellbeing, and financial debt.

Dr Nayak is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and the Royal Geographical Society with expertise in the field of social sustainability particularly as it relates to food security and social justice in the agri-food system.

Professor Hartwell is a UK Registered Nutritionist and takes a whole systems approach to food security which integrates consumer behaviour, nutrition, and environmental sustainability.

Dr Bray is a Consumer Behaviour academic focusing on food consumption behaviours. He is the scientific lead of a large European research grant investigating local food supply transparency.

 

Key recommendations

Evidence

3. How are the rising cost of living and increasing food prices affecting access to healthy and nutritious food?

It is important to realise that the cost-of-living issue is not a recent occurrence in the UK. Inflation has been affecting the poorest in our society for nearly a decade with increasing prices, debt and wage stagnation affecting the average UK household. However, with the current annual rate of inflation at its highest since 1982[1], affordability of goods and services has been directly impacted both in the short and long-term. Ballooning inflation rates, price rises, rent increases, rising debts (needing to be repaid) have led to households having to prioritise bills. This has had an impact on the average household’s ability to purchase healthy and nutritious food. With food price inflation being higher than general inflation, there is a constant battle between paying for essentials (energy and food) while managing other bills (e.g., debt mortgage/rent), forcing families to purchase cheaper (and high fat-high sugar) foods that address immediate hunger rather than long-term health. A 2022 survey by The Food Foundation estimated that approximately 7.3 million households in the UK, of which 2.6 million were children, had either gone without food or could not physically get it. This is compared with 4.7 million households in January.

Food poverty, which is defined as the inability of individuals and households to obtain an adequate nutritious diet whilst maintaining dignity[2], is closely linked to an individual/household’s economic standing, where the two create a vicious cycle with each fuelling the other[3]. Much like food insecurity, food poverty can be associated with four dimensions: food access, food availability, food utilisation and food stability. Although the two terms are often used interchangeable, food insecurity tends to be used when the scale and understanding of the nature of food poverty needs to be understood.

We found that both lower- and middle-income households accessed community feeding programs due to two primary causes:

A.     Unemployed due to:

B.     Not generating adequate income due to:

Unemployed participants received benefits in the form of Universal Credits while a few received additional allowances (e.g., Disability Allowance). However, those in employment did not receive any benefits despite their struggles with the cost-of-living crisis. This was largely due to the eligibility criteria for benefits being gross income and not disposable income. Finally, some participants were survivors of long-term domestic abuse who had relocated to start afresh. A common factor among all participants, irrespective of their household economic standing was that they experienced food poverty and had to rely on cheap and high fat-high sugar foods and community feeding programs as a solution for hunger.

Food rationing

The rising cost-of-living and increasing food prices have made many households think about rationing food to ensure food availability throughout the day:

“…I’ve been very aware of what food there was and to divide it to make sure there was enough left for three meals, at least for the children. – Beneficiary 6

Adults in families have had to stay hungry to feed another family member, usually children:

“I have had to go hungry a few times to be able to feed my children. This is something I have had to do occasionally in the past but do a lot more frequently now [since 2021].” – Beneficiary 8

Food access

Food access is concerned with the economic and physical access to food, post creation of adequate food supply at the national and regional levels. While increasing food prices has directly impacted the amount and type of food accessible to the average UK household, the cost-of-living crisis has flexed cooking habits. Increasing electric and gas (i.e., fuel) prices has required many households into purchasing foods that can be prepared without the use of a hob and/or oven. The sales of air fryers and slow cookers has increased as they utilise less electricity. Subsequently, this has led to families having to purchase foods that can fit in an air fryer, especially in cases where households are unable to invest in expensive (i.e., larger) air fryers:

“I use a slow cooker and I’ve also got a soup maker that I bought a few years back and I do use my slow cooker quite a lot because it saves on electricity. I am very aware of keeping my bills down you need to find alternative methods to prepare food.” – Beneficiary 3

While some households are stretching a meal to make it last longer:

…I try and cook and stretch meals and make them last for two meals if possible.” – Beneficiary 10

Batch cooking and freezing avoids the need for switching the oven/hob on frequently:

I cook two or three things in the oven together. So, I cook the next days meal and then put it in the microwave, so I’ve only got the oven on once for a couple of days.” – Beneficiary 2

The cost-of-living crisis has led to an increase in vehicle fuel price. This has limited people’s ability to afford travel to and from budget supermarkets, thereby limiting their physical access to food. Additionally, people with disabilities have struggled to access nutritious food as the rising prices of taxi fares has limited their ability to afford taxis:

“I can only get a taxi on the days I can afford to get it because their fares gone up as well [since the cost-of-living crisis]. [I need to rely on taxis as] I tend to struggle at home from supermarkets due to my disability, especially with heavy bags.” – Beneficiary 1

Prior to the cost-of-living crisis, families used to visit multiple supermarkets as some supermarkets offered certain products cheaper than others. For example, while fresh fruits might be cheaper in Supermarket X, bread might be cheaper in Supermarket Y and milk in Supermarket Z. Hence, families would travel to all three supermarkets to get more from the same budget. However, rising petrol and diesel prices has limited this mobility:

“I used to shop at different places to get more for my money. I cannot do that anymore because the price of petrol is ridiculous [expensive]…I know the different prices and where you can get different products cheaper, but now I have no choice buy to buy everything from one store as I cannot afford to spend more money on petrol.” – Beneficiary 12

Food availability

Food availability addresses the supply chain aspect of food poverty with a key focus on the degree of production, stock levels (surplus) and net trade. The cost-of-living crisis has forced many UK-residents from low- and middle-income households to rely heavily on community feeding programs. According to a 2022 report by Statista, in the UK, approximately 2.17 million people relied on community feeding programs in 2021/22. Many of these feeding programs receive food through donations made by the public. With increasing food prices, the quantity of food donated has decreased in 2022. This has led to a depletion in access to commonly donated foods such as tinned vegetables and fish or donations of food that are seldom consumed:

“It [stock levels] varies on the day because it depends and what they [community feeding programs] get in. By the time I visit the food hub the food is virtually gone, the fresh stuff, in the fridge, meat and stuff. I know they are all donations, so it all depends on what they’re getting... – Beneficiary 8

Families need to visit during very specific times to ensure food availability. If the narrow window is missed, they often leave the community feeding centre without adequate nutritious food, thereby forcing them to spend money on cheap and high fat-high sugar foods in supermarkets. An increasing reliance on such programs coupled with a reduction in the quantity donated has resulted in furthering the food poverty issue:

“It all depends what time you come really because if you come just after a delivery [of donations], you will have more food available. However, if you come at any other time once a lot of people have already been, the stock levels are going to be low.” – Beneficiary 9

Access to fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy within these community feeding programs has always been limited due to unfavourable storage conditions:

“…there's not a lot of fresh things. A few weeks ago, I came and there was just lettuce, so I could not get any fresh products…I have never seen fresh cold milk here... – Beneficiary 10

While few households could afford to visit budget supermarkets (e.g., Lidl and Aldi), quite often their visits did not prove fruitful as supermarkets too were low on stock due to increasing food and fuel prices and disrupted global supply chains:

“…its not like supermarkets have stock of different products either. The other day I visited supermarket YY and there were hardly any bananas left. I could also not get bananas or fresh fruits at the food bank. So, my family and kids stayed without any fruits for two weeks.” – Beneficiary 12

Families that used to visit budget supermarkets are now struggling to shop there due to increasing food prices across all supermarkets. Consequently, households purchase foods that are close to their “use-by” dates as these foods are usually sold at reduced prices. Alternatively, households rely on tinned beans from supermarkets due to their relatively low cost:

“I tend to go to Supermarket ZZ [budget supermarket]. That’s my cheap place to go. Even that’s getting expensive now. They’re starting to put their prices up. I tend to try and shop around because some places will say they’ve got their tin of beans for 50p while another place will sell the same product for £1.50.” – Beneficiary 15

“I rely a lot on the ‘reduced section’ aisle as that’s the only place I can afford to shop from in supermarkets nowadays…If they don’t have anything there, then I either go to another supermarket or buy cheap food like tinned beans and chips.” – Beneficiary 14

Food utilisation

Food utilisation addresses the way the body makes the most of nutrients in the food. Nutritional availability provides sufficient energy and is the consequence of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diet diversity, and intra-house distribution of food. With current increasing food prices, many households do not have much access to nutritional diversity. Adults have further limited access to healthy nutritious food as they have no option but to eat food left-over from their children’s plates, with some adults skipping meals to feed their family:

There have been a few times [since the prices have gone up] that I’ve had had little and whatever was left in my daughter’s plate. Because as far as I’m concerned, she has priority over me. I always make sure she’s fed. I cannot afford to waste money.” – Beneficiary 16

“There is a budget and that’s it. You’re constantly trying to get the cheapest and get some nutrition out of it. – Beneficiary 18

Limited food access and availability has led to an over-reliance on carbohydrates due to their relatively lower costs and longer shelf lives but also compounds a diet anchored in monotony:

I feel like there’s not a lot of protein.” – Beneficiary 10

“We often request more donations of tinned beans and pasta as they last longer and can keep people full for longer periods of time.”Employee 3

Although many participants identified that nutrition is an important concept to them and their households, especially for vulnerable populations, they had limited access to the diverse groups of nutrients due to limited availability at community feeding centres and increasing prices in supermarkets:

“Nutrition is an important concept in my family. I have been taught about the importance of eating different food groupsI cannot afford to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and fish as their prices have gone up a lot. This is in addition to having to pay for increased electricity and gas bills. – Beneficiary 15

Food stability

Food stability is concerned with consistent access, availability, and utilisation of nutritious and healthy food. To overcome food poverty and become food secure, every household must always have access to adequate and nutritious food. Shocks such as economic and/or climate crises and cyclical events (seasonal food insecurity) should not risk access to and availability of food[4]. Stable access to fresh food was the key issue for food stability with increasing food prices identified as the root cause:

“Sometimes it’s a struggle, especially having fresh fruit in the house…I like to have fresh fruit in the house all the time but sometimes because I get paid my universal credit monthly, I’ve got to watch my money and then sometimes there is a couple of weeks that we’ve got no fresh fruit because I’ve literally got no money left after paying the new electric and gas bills! Prices of fresh foods have gone up a lot – Beneficiary 1

Recommendations

Since 2000/01, the number of people in poverty in the UK has been relatively stable at around 14 million. A report by the Legatum Institute predicts that rising costs will push a further 2.75 million people into poverty. The following recommendations are suggested to tackle the growing issue of food poverty within the UK:

  1. Reduce reliance on food banks as food banks are not a sustainable solution. Evidence shows that unlike other community feeding programs such as community hubs, beneficiaries of food banks feel that the loss of autonomy leads to a loss of dignity. Food banks were designed as a short-term solution. With referrals to food banks at an all-time high, there must be a policy shift aiming at reducing poverty by ensuring that food and energy supply is cheap, reliable, and resilient by using a hybrid energy, increasing funding for local farmers, supporting education on local growing (including revamping school curriculum) and creating resilient and transparent labour supply chains to work in the agriculture sector. There needs to be a balance drawn between globalisation and localisation while ensuring efficient carbon emission and reduced reliance on authoritarian regimes.
  2. Promote use and advantages of frozen fruits and vegetables (F&V) as an alternative to fresh F&V. Not many households are aware that fresh F&V lose their nutritional value over time, but this is not the case with their frozen counterparts. It is also more economical to purchase frozen F&V. Community feeding programs must be provided with support to store frozen F&V.
  3. Review Universal Credits as:
    1. The £20 Universal Credit increase during the pandemic slightly reduced poverty levels in the UK. This has reversed since the removal of the additional £20. Baroness Stroud reports that to stabilize poverty at pre-pandemic levels, the government needs to introduce a 10% uprating of Universal Credits to account for inflation.
    2. The eligibility criteria do not reflect the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and increasing food prices on households and individuals, leaving many U.K. residents food insecure and at risk of having no access to heating.
  4. Develop apps that aid in the identification of local surplus food in real-time providing consumers with direct access to available food and providing psychological reassurance of food availability. This would also be useful to community feeding centres that rely on donations which are depleting due to the cost-of-living crisis. Access to mobile phones or communal screens showing real-time updates would help individuals and families that do not have regular access to the internet. The EU HORIZON-MSCA FoodMAPP research project led by Bournemouth University is leading pan-European research in this area.

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[1] Francis-Devine, B., et al., Rising cost of living in the UK, in Research Briefing. 2022, House of Commons: London. p. 1-45.

[2] Dowler, E., Food and Poverty in Britain: Rights and Responsibilities, in The Welfare of Food: rights and responsibilities in a changing world, E. Dowler and C. Jones Finer, Editors. 2003, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford. p. 140-159.

[3] Siddiqui, F., et al., The Intertwined Relationship Between Malnutrition and Poverty. Frontiers in Public Health, 2020. 8(43).

[4] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Food Security, in Policy Brief, FAO, Editor. 2006, Food and Agriculture Organization