Written evidence submitted by Dr Megan Blake
- Dr Blake is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. Her research concerns the causes and effects of household food insecurity and how to reduce vulnerability in communities by building local resilience.
- During Covid, she conducted collaborative research with food charities, local authorities, The Voluntary and Community Service Emergency Response—Food Task and Finish Group, and The Food Foundation to understand how and in what ways COVID-19 was exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Her work on community resilience as achieved through Food Ladders has informed the approach of an increasing number of local authorities and food support organisations, including Feeding Britain and FareShare. She is a co-investigator on the Fresh Street Fruit and veg voucher research project. She is also a founder member and academic advisor to the Xcess-Network of independent surplus food redistributors.
- Food insecurity has been persistent throughout the pandemic. There is also a significant proportion of the population who are at risk of food insecurity.
- Household food insecurity has strong links to household income and the availability of food, support services and transportation in a local area.
- Those groups who were disproportionately affected by food insecurity are disabled people, women, and BAME when compared to non-disabled people, men, and white British. In addition, the severely disabled were the most likely to struggle with multiple dimensions of food insecurity—2008% more likely than those with no disability.
- There are also disparities across regions. Wales is particularly an area where food insecurity or risk of food insecurity is present, followed by Yorkshire and the Humber.
- Geographical disparities widen as we consider smaller-scale units. There is considerable variation across local government areas. At one end of there are five local government areas where we estimate at least one in three people is food insecure. Conversely, in some areas, this rate is below one in twenty. While data is not available for making estimates at a finer geographical scale, it is quite likely that these overall disparities further will widen if considered at the LSOA level.
- Fiscal policy solutions must address income inequalities across groups and across places, including providing adequate support for those who are reliant on the safety net of state support and, in particular, those who have disabilities.
- Budget allocations for local authorities must include ringfenced funding to provide social care solutions that support people when they are unable to cook or shop for themselves.
- We need policy solutions that ensure healthy food is available in the areas where people live, which is available at different price points and offered through dignified means. In many instances, Local Governments will be best placed to help coordinate neighbourhood level support. They should be financially supported to do so, particularly in those local governments whose ability to raise money is diminished.
- Voucher schemes, and in particular Area-based voucher schemes, can be provided through national scale programmes. Area based-schemes have the potential to ensure the demand for food items such as fruits and vegetables is maintained in areas where market demand is weak because of income, thereby also enhancing the sustainability of local businesses in these places.
- We need to ensure that there is community infrastructure and support in place that helps to rebuild community resilience, capacity and cohesion. To do this requires a ladder approach that considers all the elements—housing, food, transport, education, community space, employment and self-employment, childcare—that are needed to enable people to rebuild their lives and their communities.
Recent trends in income and wealth inequality in the face of the pandemic
- Food insecurity is an important indicator of income and wealth inequalities as household food budgets are one of the most flexible elements of the overall household budget. Furthermore, local availability of food resources and support services are also contributors. For those on lower incomes, the cost of transportation to get the food is part of the food budget. To stretch budgets, people trade down on quality and nutrition. If your food budget is £20 per week, you are not going to spend a quarter of that just getting to the shops. If you do, there is not much left to purchase an adequate supply of healthy food. Instead, the £1 frozen pizza becomes a very attractive offer. The UK spends £16billion of its NHS spending per annum addressing diet-related ill-health.
- During COVID, we found many households were stretched such that their outgoings were more than what they could afford, and many people skipped meals for a whole day or more because they could not afford or get access to food. In August 2020, approximately 15% of the UK population experienced some level of food insecurity.
- Food insecurity is driven by many factors. These include lack of income to purchase food, lack of access to food in the locality, lack of ability to utilise the food (e.g., because too ill to shop or cook, or because there is no equipment for cooking in their home), and lack of consistency of any one of these three.
- Analysis conducted by Whitworth and Blake of data from the YouGov Food Foundation wave seven survey conducted in February 2021 indicated that 4.1% of the population had not eaten for a whole day because they could not eat or get access to food in the previous month (severe food insecurity); a further 10.9% sought help from a food bank or other service, skipped or shrank meals, or indicated they did not have enough food in the last month because of affordability or access to food (moderate food insecurity). Another 11.4% indicated that in the prior month they were worried about getting the food they needed (food worry). This latter group, while not typically considered food insecure, are at risk of food insecurity.
- Those who indicated they were food insecure in August fall into five broadly equal groups: 1. Those who were not well enough to cook or shop; 2. Those who could not get to the shops to buy food; 3. Those where we're unable to get a delivery or obtain food another way, 4. those who did not have enough money and 5. Those who were impacted by all these influences (money, health and access/transportation).
- People on universal credit were 3.59 more susceptible to being food insecure because of financial reasons (group 4 in paragraph 18) compared to those not on universal credit. This group are also 2.82 times more likely to be food insecure because of all three things (group 5 in paragraph 18).
- Qualitative research conducted by Kennard and Blake in the Sheffield City Region identified that while there are those who had previous experience of food insecurity became so again during the pandemic, the pandemic also brought people into food insecurity who had previously been ok.
- For many, resources include access to social networks that can help in times of trouble. Kennard and Blake's research found that the pandemic exhausted the social resources for many. In several instances where social networks were still intact, those within those networks were similarly struggling.
- People found that as they shielded shops that they had previously purchased food were no longer accessible to them.
- There is considerable evidence that being poor and food insecure has additional effects on individuals. For example, the stress of trying to feed one's family and make ends meet on a budget that just won't stretch and the shame that goes along with that takes a mental and physical toll as it also isolates. For some, the inability to cope has meant turning to drugs, alcohol, gambling or other addictions. These impacts further limit the ability of the household to recover and move forward out of their situation.
How the economic impact of the crisis is affected by disability, gender, and race inequality
- Analysis of the YouGov wave 6 data, which examines adult experiences of food insecurity during August 2020, identifies a number of inequalities across disability, gender and race. The next points in this section draw on this analysis to demonstrate these inequalities.
- Severe disability versus no disability: People with a severe disability are 11.55 times more likely (1155%) than those with no disability to experience food insecurity because of illness (group 1, paragraph 18). This group is 20.05 times (2005%) more likely to be in the in-group who was insecure because of financial, health and access reasons (group 5, paragraph 18) compared to those with no disabilities.
- Mild disability versus no disability: Those with a mild disability were also more likely than those with no disability to experience food insecurity. This group were 3.5 times (350%) more likely to be food insecure because of illness (group 1, paragraph 17) and 5.85 (580%) times more likely to be in the multiply impacted group (group 5, paragraph 18).
- Women versus men: Women are 50% more likely to report being food insecure compared to men. This is most likely to be related to delivery and transportation issues (groups 2 and 3, paragraph 18).
- Households with three or more children versus households with no children: Households that have three or more children are 3.7 times more likely (370%) to be food insecure because of transpiration and access issues compared to households with no children. Households with three or more children are 3.9 times more likely (390%) to be food insecure because of multiple reasons (group 4, paragraph 18).
- BAME versus White British: This group was 186% more likely food insecure because of illness only (group 1, paragraph 18), 129% more likely to be food insecure for financial reasons only (group 4, paragraph 18), but 229% to be in the group affected by all factors (group 5, paragraph 18).
Inequalities across regions
- This section draws on data collected by YouGov for the Food Foundation wave seven survey that was conducted in February 2021. This survey was smaller (4,231 responses compared to 10,845 in Wave 6) but, unlike previous waves, have geographical identifiers that enable Local Authority Area Estimations. Rates of adult food insecurity are relatively stable across these two survey waves.
- Direct estimates for each region indicate that there are some regional variations across the whole of the UK in terms of the risk to or experience of food insecurity, as illustrated in this table of analysis conducted by Moretti, Whitworth and Blake. Definitions of Worry, Severe and Moderate are explained in paragraph 17.
- All regions have some presence of food insecurity; however, this is not evenly distributed.
East of England
Yorkshire & Humber
- Regions with the highest percentage of adults reporting severe food insecurity in January 2021 were Yorkshire and the Humber, Wales, and the South West. Areas where we directly estimate the greatest percentage of people experiencing moderate food insecurity in the previous month were in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales. Those areas where people are not yet food insecure but are at risk are located in London, the North East, and Wales. The area with the lowest presence of food insecurity was in the East of England.
- Food insecurity is also not equally distributed across local government regions, with some having a severe impact and others a relatively small one. Moretti, Whitworth and Blake have calculated local area estimates at local authority level to identify local authority regions where worry (risk), severe, and moderate food insecurity are present. The estimates are a combination of direct and indirect estimation drawing of the YouGov Food Foundation wave seven survey and indirect estimates deriving from harmonised IMD and other local authority population estimates. We note that in some localities, such as Hull, rates of overall food insecurity (moderate and severe) as many as one in three people are struggling. At the other end of the spectrum, this rate falls to around one in twenty.
- A number of places with high rates of food insecurity are also those that have experienced reductions in local government spending between 2009/10 and 2017/18 well above the national rate of -14.3%. In particular, Stoke had a 24% decline, and Hull had a 23.1% decline. If we are going to expect local authorities to help with the levelling up agenda, sufficient and ringfenced funding is needed that allows them to be able to do that work.
- While there considerable variation between local government regions, it is extremely likely there will be even more variation within each region, although no data is available that is suitable for making such small-scale estimates.
Combating the inequalities that have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.
- Current fiscal policy is impacting the disabled, particularly the severely disabled, in terms of their wellbeing and health. Stakeholder analysis that specifically considers the disabled should be conducted when budget line items are considered and allocated.
- While spending on social care has increased recently, this comes after years of funding withdrawal, which has resulted in the cutting of important wrap-around services that give people the support needed to develop their capability and capacity to move forward. Furthermore, certain groups will need support with their ability to eat a healthy diet; this is something the health services should be considering but it will need funding from government.
- Research on area-based voucher schemes, as opposed to group targeted schemes, suggests that such schemes have the capacity to support local food businesses and redress the problems of access to healthy food that many places face. These schemes also reduce acceptability barriers faced by other vouchers because they use locality characteristics such as high IMD, low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption, high prevalence of children's overweight and obesity as the gateway mechanism as opposed to individual-level characteristics. An example of such a scheme is FreshStreet, which has been trialled previously in Barnsley and Sheffield, and is about to be part of a larger trial in Doncaster. One barrier to this scheme is that there is no central government funding for the vouchers. Vouchers are £5/week to households regardless of size. This could be something the treasure could consider supporting.
- Spending that enhances community resilience and social connectivity removes vulnerability to food insecurity. In the longer run it can save the government money or drive down the rising need for spending on issues such as prisons, poor mental health, poor physical health associated with diet-related illness. This spending also enables us as a country to achieve individual levels of health, wealth and wellbeing that should be the case for a wealthy nation.
- We need to move away from a system that relies on food banks to one that provides a ladder approach. A ladder approach moves people from hunger to budget-stretching and capacity building and eventually into accessing healthy and affordable food locally from businesses that are part of those communities. Those who struggle with moderate food insecurity, but are not in crisis, are more able to engage with additional services that help them to move into a more stable position, including employment. The FoodLadders Framework is one such approach and the levelling-up fund would be an ideal vehicle for supporting these efforts.
- While the availability and affordability of food in the places where people live may not seem initially like a Treasury concern, the fact is that food insecurity is a real and significant proxy measure for social inequalities that has very real consequences for those who experience it. Addressing the issue is something that cuts across a wide number of government departments, including but not limited to the departments for DCMS, Education, Transport, Work and Pensions, Health and Social Care, EFRA and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Each of these departments and ministries should be tasked with considering how they can contribute to the solution and be directed to allocate efforts and budgets accordingly.
- Unless people are able to feed themselves and their families, moving forward to reduce inequalities, enhance economic recovery and progress regeneration will not happen.
 FAO 2008. An introduction to the basic concepts of food security. Available online. http://www.fao.org/3/al936 2021 https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/programmes/malnutrition-task-force/#:~:text=Malnutrition%20is%20a%20real%20issue,people%20in%20the%20UK%20today e/al936e.pdf
 Based on direct estimates using the YouGov Food Foundation wave 7 data.
 Detail about the FreshStreet voucher scheme is available from https://freshstreet.uk/
 For more on the Food Ladders framework see: https://www.sustainablefoodplaces.org/news/using-food-ladders-to-create-household-and-community-resilience/