Dr Rachel Loopstra and Dr Aaron Reeves – Written evidence (FPO0065)


Key points:

  1. The risk of food insecurity has increased over time for low-income adults over time, particularly for those living with life-limiting disabilities.
  2. While more research is need on these issues, it is not clear that government have acted on what we already know about the scale of the problem and who is most at risk.


“What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges persisted over a number of years?”

  1. Low-income adults were more vulnerable to food insecurity in 2016 than they were in 2003-2005. Inadequate data on household food insecurity has limited our understanding of whether or not food insecurity has risen in the UK in the past decade. However, our recent analysis of data from the 2003-2005 Low Income Diet and Nutrition survey and the 2016 Food and You survey showed that low-income adults in 2016 were significantly more likely to be food insecure than similar adults in the 2003-2005 survey, even after controlling for socio-economic characteristics, including unemployment, disability, and education level.[1] More specifically, the probability of being food insecure in 2004 was about 28% and this rose to 46% in 2016. It is important to be clear about what these numbers do not say: they do not report the prevalence of food insecurity in these groups, something that is not possible to estimate with surveys collected using different sampling procedures. But, what our results do suggest is that among adults who are otherwise similar in terms of the key predictors of food insecurity, the risk of food insecurity has gone up considerably over this period.


  1. This increase risk of food insecurity has been particularly acute among adults with disabilities. More specifically, over 2004 to 2016, food insecurity rose from 27.9% to 53.5% among adults with disabilities but only from 27.3% to 37.7% among adults without disabilities.[2] In this paper, we discuss how our research among people using food banks has shown that people with disabilities are over-represented compared to the general population, and how evidence suggests welfare reforms carried out over 2010 to present have disproportionately penalised and disentitled people with disabilities. Thus, rising vulnerability to food insecurity in the population may in part be explained by rising vulnerability among people with disabilities, rooted in changes to social security support for this group in the population.


  1. Risk of food insecurity is higher for adults with low levels of education, adults with children, adults younger than 35 (compared to adults aged 45-54), adults who identify by ethnicities other than White British/White, adults who were unemployed and adults who were not working for reasons other than unemployment and retirement, and adults with incomes in the lowest income quartile. We used multivariate analyses to examine which socio-economic characteristics associate with risk of food insecurity.[3] Whilst these associations do not identify causes of food insecurity, they highlight groups in the population that are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. These characteristics align with risk of poverty. In addition to looking at risk of any level of food insecurity (that is, from anxiety about food supplies running out to skipping meals to not eating), we also looked at what characteristics associate with risk of most severe experiences of food insecurity. Here, we saw only three characteristics stand out: disability, unemployment, and low income. For a short briefing paper on these findings, please see https://enuf.org.uk/rise-hunger-among-low-income-households-analysis-risks-food-insecurity-between-2004-and-2016


Question 5) What can be learnt from food banks and other charitable responses to hunger? What role should they play?

  1. Data from The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network suggest there has been rising demand for food assistance from food banks in the past decade. The number of food parcels distributed by The Trussell Trust, the largest network of food banks in the UK, has increased year-on-year since 2011-12.[4] Growing demand for food assistance from food banks has raised concern about rising levels of household food insecurity across the UK, but interpreting these raw statistics on volume is not straightforward. For example, the rising number of parcels distributed may reflect (i) increasing need amongst a growing number of individuals , (ii) deepening need among the same group of individuals (i.e. increasing visits to food banks), and/or (iii) increased availability of food banks in places where food banks have not existed before.


  1. However, it is clear that rising food bank usage is only partially explained by greater availability or more visits by the same people. Our analysis[5] of the trends in Trussell Trust food bank use over 2012 to 2016 showed that independent of the number of food bank distribution sites operating in local authorities, food bank use rose, particularly over 2012 to 2014.  Work by other researchers has found that in one local area found that whilst repeated use within one Trussell Trust food bank accounted for some of the rise in volume of use observed, it did not account for all of it.[6]


  1. The profile of households using Trussell Trust food banks highlight some of the groups worse affected by food insecurity. Food bank users experience high levels of severe food insecurity, high rates of disability, and poor health.[7] Our comparison of the health status of working-age adults in the general population (from the Health Survey for England) with working-age adults using food banks found that even after accounting for the lower socio-economic profile of food bank users, they were more likely to rate their health as poor, more likely to have life-limiting disabilities, and more likely to have mental health conditions (Loh, Knight, and Loopstra, under review). 


  1. Food bank usage is a barometer of the failure of reforms to social security carried out over the past decade. A large volume of research has linked welfare reforms to the rise of Trussell Trust Foodbank usage. This includes both quantitative data and qualitative studies.


  1. However, food bank use in The Trussell Trust does not capture the full scale of the problem of household food insecurity in the population. Many people who are struggling to access sufficient quantities of food may use food banks outside this network, may not have food banks accessible to them, or may resist use of receiving food charity.


    1. The Independent Food Aid Network has mapped numerous food banks operating outside The Trussell Trust. Over 2018-19, we conducted a survey of 114 independent food banks operating in England found that many of these started operating in 2012 or 2013 in response to identified need in their communities (Loopstra, R. Author unpublished analysis of survey data, 2019). People using these food banks are not captured in The Trussell Trust data, but our preliminary analysis of the main groups using these food banks suggest that they are predominantly people negatively affected by welfare reforms and reliant on social security benefits.
    2. While Trussell Trust and independent food banks now operate in most local areas across the UK, many food banks only operate between two and four hours each week[8],[9]. Very few food banks are open in the evenings or on the weekends. The voluntary nature of food bank operations restricts access to food banks. Other operational features, such as requiring people to have a referral from social service agencies, requiring people to show ID, and/or restricting the number of times that people can receive food parcels may also inhibit food bank use among food insecure people.
    3. Many people feel ashamed about having to receive help from food banks. Our earlier research in Canada[10] has shown that among food insecure households not receiving help from food banks, many people felt that food banks were not an appropriate source of help and were resistant to receiving help from these charities, citing others as being in more need and not being eligible for assistance, despite having experiences of food insecurity themselves.

For these reasons, to understand the full scale of food insecurity in the population, how it has changed, and who is vulnerable, it is important for food insecurity to be monitored on national surveys. 

  1. Food banks and other charitable forms of food assistance do not reduce food insecurity. This is true for three reasons. [11] First, the nature of food support is limited, both by imposed restriction on how often people can receive help and by the quantity and quality of food in food parcels. Second, operational barriers restrict access to food banks, meaning some people experiencing food insecurity will not reach them. Food charity is inherently limited by its reliance on food donations, volunteer labour, donated space. These constraints limit its effectiveness and reach. Third, as highlighted above, some people experiencing food insecurity are resistant to using food banks. Thus, food banks cannot be, and should not be, relied upon to feed hungry people in their communities. Upstream solutions that prevent food insecurity and from people reaching the food crisis point at which they seek help from food banks are needed.


Question 14) What can the UK learn from food policy in other countries? Are there examples of strategies which have improved access and affordability of healthy, sustainable food across income groups?


Question 15) Are there any additional changes at a national policy level that would help to ensure efforts to improve food insecurity and poor diet, and its impact on public health and the environment, are effectively coordinated, implemented and monitored?

  1. It is not clear what efforts have been made at the policy level to improve food insecurity in the UK. Based on evidence available, it appears that food insecurity is increasing among low income and vulnerable groups, particularly those reliant on benefits. Changes in administration (i.e. through the implementation of Universal Credit), harsher sanctioning penalties, and loss of entitlements have repeatedly been identified as drivers of food bank use. This evidence has not been acted on by the Government.
  2. The evidence base would be strengthened if the Department for Work and Pensions monitored food insecurity and other measures of material deprivation as part of their evaluations of their welfare reform programmes.
  3. In addition, whilst household food insecurity will be monitored in the Family Resources Survey from 2019, to monitor the impact of food insecurity on health in the UK population, and the impacts of relevant policy changes, measures of food insecurity need to be integrated and maintained in existing health surveys (e.g. National Diet and Nutrition Survey, Health Survey for England; continue to be monitored in the Scottish Health Survey) and larger scale population surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey.


Dr Rachel Loopstra, Department of Nutritional Sciences, King’s College London

Dr Aaron Reeves, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford

Note: Both authors are acting in an individual capacity, not on behalf of their universities.


12 September 2019



[1] Loopstra R, Reeves A, Tarasuk VT. (2019). The rise of hunger among low-income households: an analysis of the risks of food insecurity between 2004 and 2016 in a population-based study of UK adults. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 73:668-673.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Loopstra R, Reeves A, Tarasuk VT. (2019). The rise of hunger among low-income households: an analysis of the risks of food insecurity between 2004 and 2016 in a population-based study of UK adults. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 73:668-673.

[4] https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/

[5] Loopstra, R., Fledderjohann, J., Reeves, A., & Stuckler, D. (2018). Impact of Welfare Benefit Sanctioning on Food Insecurity: A Dynamic Cross-Area Study of Food Bank Usage in the UK. Journal of Social Policy, 47(3), 437-457.

[6] Garratt, E. (2017). Please sir, I want some more: an exploration of repeat foodbank use. BMC Public Health, 17(828).

[7] Loopstra, R., Lalor, D. (2017). Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability: the profile of people receiving emergency food assistance from The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network in Britain.

[8] Loopstra, R., Lambie-Mumford, H., Fledderjohann, J. (2019). Food bank operational characteristics and rates of food bank use across Britain. BMC Public Health. 19(1).

[9] Author analysis of unpublished survey data of 114 independent food banks operating in England.

[10] Loopstra, R. and Tarasuk, V. (2012), ‘The relationship between food banks and household food insecurity among low income Toronto families’, Canadian Public Policy, 38: 497–514.

[11] Loopstra, R. Interventions to address household food insecurity in high-income countries. (2018). Proc Nutr Soc. 77(3):270-281.

[12] Loopstra, R., Reeves, A., McKee, M., Stuckler, D. (2016). Food insecurity and social protection in Europe: Quasi-natural experiment of Europe's great recessions 2004-2012. Preventive Medicine. 17(89):44-50.