University of York, IKnowFood Programme – Written evidence (FPO0040)


Dr Maddy Power, Dr Katie Pybus, Professor Bob Doherty and Professor Kate Pickett on behalf of the University of York, IKnowFood Programme.


  1. This submission is based upon the findings of IKnowFood, in particular the work within Theme 3 'Consumer', conducted by an interdisciplinary team of academics. The research is funded by the Global Food Security Programme.  The submission is also informed by participatory research conducted as part of the collaborative policy development work of the York Food Poverty Alliance.


Significant trends in and key causes of food insecurity in the UK (question 1)


  1. Food insecurity, the “limited access to food … due to lack of money or financial resources”, appears to be at unprecedented levels in the UK.[1] There is no single, nationwide Government measure for food insecurity in the UK, however small-scale studies paint a picture of a widespread and urgent food insecurity crisis. A study by the Food Standards Agency found that 13 per cent of adults are marginally food secure and 8 per cent have low or very low food security, typically having gone a whole day without eating at various times during the year because they could not afford food.[2] A 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, averaging data from 2015 to 2017, estimated that 2.2 million people in the UK were severely food insecure.[1] This is the highest reported level in Europe, and implies that the UK is responsible for one in five of all severely food insecure people in Europe.[3] Food insecurity is particularly high among people who are unemployed (47% of whom report food insecurity) and those in the lowest income quartile (34%). Women are more likely to live in food insecure households than men (10% compared to 6%) and there is evidence that the likelihood of food insecurity varies by ethnic group.[2, 4]


  1. It is important to note that food insecurity denotes a broad category of experiences, ranging from episodes of acute hunger to concern about the ability to obtain food. It may, thus, be a transitory state, in which the receipt of food from a food bank or from friends and family relieves hunger, however, it may also be a chronic experience. Episodes of hunger may be set against a backdrop of permanent concern about affording sufficient food. Parents of young children in York and Bradford describe the constant struggle of affording healthy and fresh food for their children: "Healthy food is expensive, I often skip meals so that I can afford to feed my children a healthy balanced diet. I expect this is the case in many households."[5]


  1. Food insecurity or food poverty – but, crucially, not poverty – appears to be a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. Prior to 2010, both the notion of food insecurity and the existence of food banks were largely unknown. The salience of food insecurity today and, especially, the widespread use of food banks can largely be attributed to the £30 billion of cuts in working-age social security initiated by the Coalition government in 2010. These cuts are still being rolled out. 


  1. Cuts to working-age social security since 2010 include the abolition of the Health in Pregnancy Grant; the localisation of the Social Fund; and the abolition of the School Maintenance Grant. The value of working-age benefits, for people in and out of work, has been steadily eroded by uprating changes and, in 2016, working-age benefits and tax credits – including some for people who are too unwell to work – were frozen until 2020. When the freeze ends in 2020/21, a substantial proportion of the financial saving will have been derived from the incomes of some of the most vulnerable households in the UK.


  1. The imposition of local rent limits has reduced the value of Housing Benefit, forcing some tenants to pay a proportion of their rent out of the food budget; the ‘bedroom tax’ – tenants in social housing have their benefit reduced by 14% if they have a spare bedroom or 25% if they have two or more – has had a similar effect. The localisation of Council Tax support has, in effect, forced those in receipt of working-age social security to pay some or all of their Council Tax – an abrupt and sharp increase in outgoings for households who were previously exempt. The roll-out of the benefit cap (a limit on the total amount of income from certain benefits a household can receive) and the two-child limit (in families where there are already two or more children, the child element in Universal Credit and tax credits – worth £2,780 per child per year – is restricted to the first two children) have similarly resulted in huge losses for larger families.


  1. Most detrimentally, the roll-out of the Universal Credit system has precipitated sudden and severe financial losses for many households. Excessive waiting times; delays in receiving payments; debt and loan repayments; and an enhanced benefit sanction regime have rendered many people destitute. The devastating impact of Universal Credit on household finances is manifest in countless testimonials of benefit claimants: "Universal Credit has wrecked us. We have just gone on it and I have been told me and my five-year-old will have to go at least seven weeks with no income at all. We will have to go to food banks and try to get food."[5]


  1. These changes to working-age social security are directly reflected in rising food bank use. In 2018, the Trussell Trust attributed 24% of its emergency referrals to “benefit delays” and 18% to “benefit changes.” It found that, on average, 12 months after Universal Credit roll-out, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, compared with 13% in areas where Universal Credit has been in place for three months or less.[6] This increase exists after accounting for seasonal and other variations, suggesting Universal Credit is a causal factor.


  1. Such cuts have occurred against a backdrop of wider insecurity and inequality: of rising living costs; of low paid and insecure work; and of stagnating wages in the middle of the income distribution, accompanied by rising incomes at the top. Indeed, low income is the strongest and most consistent predictor of food insecurity – at the local, national and international level.[4]


The accessibility of healthy food and the key barriers to people’s ability to consume a healthy diet (question 3)


  1. This submission addresses barriers to a healthy diet in urban areas only, due to the geographical focus of our research programmes. Healthy food is increasingly inaccessible to low and middle income households. A survey of 612 parents with children aged 4-11 years, conducted as part of wider research on food insecurity among UK families, revealed that income is the strongest determinant of fruit and vegetable consumption. Households with a total income below £38,399 report financial barriers to eating fruit and vegetables twice a day or more. Participants report a desire to eat more fruit and vegetables, but describe fruit and vegetables – fruit especially – as prohibitively expensive.[5]


  1. Parents are highly concerned with providing a healthy, balanced diet for their children and describe using a variety of strategies to maintain an adequate supply of fresh fruit and vegetables for household members, including parents skipping meals so that there is enough food for their children to eat a healthy meal; visiting multiple shops to find the cheapest produce; and accessing fresh fruit and vegetables from community food aid.


  1. Nevertheless, while there is evidence of difficulties in affording sufficient fresh fruit/vegetables on low and middle incomes, a relatively high level of consumption is maintained among all income groups. Quantitative data on perceptions of the ‘most unaffordable food item’ and qualitative data on consumption and food purchases suggests that the main concern among parents in the sample is affording sufficient protein, particularly meat and fish. Qualitative data suggests that diets low in meat and fish are common in the sample; parents replace fresh meat and fish with forms of vegetable protein (lentils and legumes) not with processed meat/fish.


  1. There is a strong relationship between food insecurity and the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables: survey respondents who are food insecure consume less fruit/vegetables than those who are food secure (less than once a week compared to once a day), and respondents who use a food bank consume less fruit/vegetables than those who do not use a food bank (less than once a week compared to any higher frequency). In our sample, there was no difference in the quantity of processed food consumed between food insecure and food secure respondents, however individuals who had ever used a food bank were more likely to be consuming higher quantities of processed food than those who had never used a food bank. This raises the question of whether it is the food bank itself, rather than the experience of food insecurity, that promotes a higher consumption of processed food.


  1. The geographical accessibility of low cost, good quality, healthy food is a further important barrier to consumption and, linked with this, the quality and cost of transport systems linking residential areas with large, cheaper, out-of-town supermarkets. Focus group with low income parents highlighted this barrier: "The cost of travel for shopping is often forgotten with most of the big supermarkets being on the outskirts. For people with disabilities, this can be an extra £20 or more per shop."[5]


The role of local authorities in promoting healthy eating among their local population and their effectiveness in fulfilling their responsibilities to improve the health of people living in their area (question 4)


  1. The role of local authorities in promoting healthy eating in their local population is limited given the extent of funding cuts since 2010. The most effective mechanism for improving healthy eating among households is to protect/improve incomes and reduce food insecurity. Therefore, the local authority response to healthy eating must focus, not on diet itself, but on the income that facilitates a particular diet. Key actions may include:

                     Increasing promotion of existing initiatives that target food insecurity and provide help to residents in hardships, such as Discretionary Housing Payment, Council Tax support, local financial assistance schemes, Healthy Start Vouchers, and Free School Meals.

                     Organising development and training sessions on food insecurity for Councillors, led by the relevant lead Councillor, that includes advice on dealing with residents in severe hardship, how to make food bank referrals, the roll out of Universal Credit, and the local social security safety net.

                     Reviewing the application process and criteria for Council Tax support and decreasing the percentage of Council Tax those claiming Council Tax Support are required to pay.

                     Funding Free School Meals for all primary school children.

                     Reviewing the costs of the school day, including discouraging expensive uniform requirements by schools.


Learning from and considering the role of food banks and other charitable responses to hunger (question 5)


  1. The civil society response to rising food insecurity and destitution has been swift, widespread and varied. Most noticeably, the Trussell Trust network of food banks has grown rapidly in number from 12 a year between 2003 and 2008 to roughly 400 food banks operating out of 1200 food bank centres today – a shocking increase. Alongside Trussell Trust food banks, exist over 800 ‘independent’ food banks run by other organisations and an unknown number of other emergency and non-emergency food sources, such as soup kitchens, Pay-As-You-Feel cafes, community kitchens, community supermarkets, and community gardens.


  1. The rapid growth in food banks distributing ‘emergency’ food supplies to people in crisis exemplifies the strength of community commitment and energy to assist others in austere times. However, the extent to which food banks are an adequate response to hunger remains questionable. The ‘voucher system’, in which food can only be received from the food bank on the condition that an individual presents a ‘voucher’ accessed from and signed by another service provider, such as a GP, may construct – and cement – a division between those deserving of food support and those undeserving. The absence of choice within the food bank – service users are given a defined parcel of food, containing a nutritionally balanced diet for up to three days; while some food banks may provide limited choice within or in addition to this parcel, this is not common to all food banks – undermines the agency of service users and may exacerbate the perceived stigma of food bank use.[7] More fundamentally, the very existence and expansion of food banks may facilitate further austerity and welfare reform: by accepting responsibility for individual wellbeing, food banks relieve the state of its responsibility to prevent destitution.[8]


  1. Other forms of food aid may, nevertheless, offer examples of dignified, inclusive short-term responses to food insecurity. Many food aid organisations avoid the (traditionally) transactional and delimited model of food bank support, opting for models of food charity which provide choice (e.g. community supermarkets); control (for instance, involving service users in decision-making and governance); and community and sociability – many community cafes offer universal, open-access provision, thereby avoiding the stigma associated with means-tested support, and encourage sociability between service users through communal meals. Learning from these particular aspects of community food aid – choice, control and sociability – may be important in designing a more dignified response to food insecurity. However, it is well established that no form of community food aid is an adequate, long-term response to food insecurity. Whilst learning from the best aspects of community food aid, we should be focusing, not on the expansion of food aid, but on a food bank exit strategy. This must include consideration of the requisite action to ensure that those in food insecurity have effective and immediate access to advice and cash-based entitlements during a financial crisis.


The sufficiency of research on the links between poverty, food insecurity, health inequalities and the sustainability of food production; and the impact of existing research on food policy used to inform decision making (question 6)


  1. There is a rapidly growing body of research on food insecurity and the use of food banks in the UK. However, significant research gaps remain on the demography of UK food insecurity and on the use of food aid beyond the food bank, for instance community cafes and soup kitchens. Exploratory research in Bradford shows that food insecure mothers and children have dietary intakes of poor quality, with fewer vegetables and higher consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.[9] Additional research is needed to understand how food insecurity exacerbates inequalities in nutritional status (including overweight and obesity) among different population groups, including children, the elderly and ethnic minorities. 


  1. More research is needed to understand food insecurity in the context of sustainable food production. There is an urgent need to investigate how we can effectively tackle food insecurity whilst maintaining high food standards and sustainable food production.


  1. DEFRA carried out their last National Food Security Assessment in 2010 with a high level summary in 2012. The indicators used in the assessment are very narrow and do not include indicators such as number of food banks and other providers plus number of families accessing Free School Meals. The IKnowFood evidence unpacks the fact that even these indicators are not sufficient.


Learning from food policy in other countries: examples of strategies which have improved access and affordability of healthy, sustainable food across income groups (question 14)


  1. Fieldwork by these authors in the United States (Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York) identified multiple, innovative responses to food insecurity. These alternative responses improve access to and affordability of healthy, sustainable food particularly in low income groups by: addressing the root causes of food insecurity as part of broader food distribution programmes (see the work of Neighbors Together, Brooklyn, NY); providing food aid service users with opportunities to develop skills and gain employment (e.g. Elijah’s Promise, NY); and closely linking local farming and food production with food charity, thereby providing healthy, sustainable food for vulnerable groups (for best practice see the InterVale Centre, Vermont). Whilst caution must be taken in learning from food aid in the US – the US has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the Global North and action to tackle its root causes has been slow and ineffective – select, alternative models of food aid can inform the design of dignified and sustainably-oriented responses to food insecurity in the UK.


  1. The Scottish Government has adopted an alternative response to food insecurity to the UK Government. Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government has committed to making Scotland “a country where everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food without needing emergency food aid”. The Scottish Government has set up a Fair Food Transformation Fund to invest in projects that balance current demands for emergency food aid with community-led, long-term solutions to food insecurity.


Policy recommendations: required changes at a national policy level to improve food insecurity and poor diet (question 15)


  1. Despite the need for joined-up cross-government action, food insecurity has fallen between the cracks in Government plans. Government continues to see food insecurity as an overseas issue, with DFID the only Department to include them in its Single Departmental Plan. Reflecting this, there is no clear ministerial accountability for combatting food insecurity in the UK. Efforts to improve food insecurity and poor diet are unlikely to improve in the UK without substantial and coordinated cross-government action. We recommend that the Government appoint a minister with responsibility and accountability for combatting food insecurity within the UK. This minister should work with local government and civil society to explore the scale, causes and impact of food insecurity and poor diet. Most importantly, this minister should work across sectors and Government departments to implement strategies for improvement in household food security in the UK, and monitor progress.


  1. In light of the well-established links between food insecurity, poor diet and welfare reform, we recommend that the Government implement policy change to reduce income shocks generated through the welfare system, including:


                     Reducing or removing the waiting period for initial Universal Credit payments;

                     Providing transitional protection payments for all claimants transferring to Universal Credit from other benefits;

                     Ensuring that HMRC generated Real Time Information accurately reflects earnings for assessment periods and that any inaccuracies are promptly corrected;

                     Reducing waiting times for eligibility assessments and appeals across key benefits;

                     Providing councils with sufficient funding for an adequate financial assistance scheme by increasing and ring-fencing funding for the scheme in the national budget.


  1. It is worth noting that sudden reductions in income may lead to borrowing with the effect of causing longer term financial difficulties. Advance payments associated with Universal Credit may also be viewed as problematic in this way. 



  1. FAO, IFAD., WFP & WHO, The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World 2017. 2017, FAO: Rome.
  2. FSA, The 'Food and You' survey Wave 4 (2016) in The 'Food and You' survey. 2017, Food Standards Agency: London. p. 1-87.
  3. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK. 2019, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: London.
  4. Power, M., et al., Food insecurity and socio-demographic characteristics in two UK ethnic groups: an analysis of women in the Born in Bradford cohort. Journal of Public Health, 2018. 40(1): p. 32-40..
  5. Power, M., Seeking justice: how to understand and end food poverty in York. 2019, York Food Justice Alliance: York.
  6. Trussell Trust, Record 1.6m food bank parcels given to people in past year as the Trussell Trust calls for end to Universal Credit five week wait. 2019, Trussell Trust: London.
  7. Poppendieck, J., Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. 1998, New York: Penguin.
  8. Power, M., et al., All in it Together? Community Food Aid in a Multi-Ethnic Context. Journal of Social Policy, 2017. 46(3): p. 447-471.
  9. Yang, T., Sahota, P., Pickett, K., Byrant, M., Association of food security status with overweight and dietary intake: exploration of White British and Pakistani-origin families in the Born in Bradford cohort. Nutrition Journal, 2018. 24(17): p. 48.


Written evidence submitted by Dr Maddy Power, Dr Katie Pybus, Professor Bob Doherty and Professor Kate Pickett. On behalf of the University of York, IKnowFood Programme.


12 September 2019