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Food insecurity series: the risks and how to help

Our researcher and data analyst, Hannah Scott, explores food insecurity in London, recent policy and available support. This is the second of two blogs on food insecurity; read the first one here.

Food insecurity: more than foodbanks

Woman picking out oranges from a local supermarket wearing a mask.

Despite all of London’s amenities, not everyone has equal access to a local supermarket with affordable, nutritious food.

Food banks provide much-needed short-term support to those in need of emergency food aid. However, long-term programmes and changes at a policy level are needed to create food security (reliable access to enough nutritious food) for all. 

From available population-level data in the UK, we know that more people face food insecurity than use food banks. A YouGov survey in January 2021 showed that on average, 4% of London households went hungry as a result of not being able to get food in the past month. 12.6% had needed to cut back or skip meals because they couldn’t access food. 14% were worried about being able to adequately secure the food that they needed for their household.

Of 100 London households, 4 will go hungry at some point in a month, 13 will have to cut back on or skip meals, 14 will be worried about being able to access food.

More recent data from the Food Foundation finds that as of January 2022, levels of food insecurity have risen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. 13.8% of Londoners have experienced food insecurity due to a lack of finances over the past six months. Significantly, this is the highest proportion of any UK region. 

Food Deserts in London

From research, we know that access to food is not always equal. A “food desert” is an area with limited access to affordable and healthy food. Despite the amenities of London, not all Londoners have the same access to supermarkets. Those with cars, or those who can use public transport, are more likely to be able to get to larger supermarkets. Those who cannot afford transport, or who have physical access needs may rely on smaller shops with more limited stock. The rise in fares for London’s transport network and recent record highs in fuel prices could further impact this. 

The Southwark “Healthy Basket” study in 2020 illustrates the disparity in the affordability of food in London. The study compared the availability and cost of a standard basket of healthy food from shops across the borough. Availability and prices varied, but convenience shops typically had less availability of fruits/vegetables and higher prices. It was found that the most expensive basket cost three times more money than the least expensive one. 

Trust for London has created a map representing the E-food Desert Index in London (factoring in online grocery shopping as well as physical shopping). This helps to illustrate inequalities in food access across the capital. Several areas in London are in the 10% of worst scoring areas for food access across England and Wales. This is significant when accounting for the city’s dense population and infrastructure. 

Government initiatives to tackle food poverty

Image of Big Ben with a blue cloudless sky in the background.

The government and local authorities play a key role in improving food security, including schemes such as free school meals for children.

Many charities work to improve food security beyond emergency food provision. We have linked some of these below. However, the government and local authorities play a key role in improving food security. They have the ability to create policies and programmes not reliant on public support and ensure equal, accessible support for all.  

Sustain’s annual “Beyond the Food Bank” report documents London’s food poverty profile. The latest report highlights the variability in each council’s approach to tackling food poverty. However, it highlights the progress of councils’ action plans to tackle drivers of food poverty.

Sustain’s reports also include recommendations to help councils to effectively reduce food poverty. They encourage implementing the Living Wage to ensure that people have enough money for essentials. Other recommendations focus on improving nutrition for vulnerable groups, such as children and older adults. 

There are some national programmes to support these groups, and local authorities are encouraged to promote their use. For example, the Healthy Start programme offers support for families to buy healthy food and milk for children under four. However, NHS England data suggests that in December, in line with the national average, only 51% of people eligible for Healthy Start vouchers in London had redeemed them. This suggests that more promotion is needed to raise awareness of programmes like these.

Children and Free School Meals

All local authorities provide free meals at school to children that meet their eligibility criteria (although families must opt-in to the scheme). National statistics show that the proportion of children eligible for free school meals in England was 20.8% in 2021, rising consistently since the 2018/19 school year when it was 15.4%. However, not all families at risk of food insecurity are eligible for free school meals. For example, the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 37% of children in England in poverty are not eligible for the programme.

This scheme does not cover school holidays. Last summer, Marcus Rashford publicly pressured the government to provide meals to vulnerable children over the summer holidays. Currently, the government funds local authorities in England to provide children eligible for free school meals with healthy meals during school holidays. But these minimum requirements do not cover all childrens’ holidays throughout the year.  

If I’m in the position to help, what can I do?

Support the organisations that help to feed London

Volunteers distributing cooked meals wearing face masks.

Volunteering can include distributing cooked meals as well as long-lasting food parcels.

There is an expected rise in demand for emergency food aid. Therefore, food banks may start to feel increased pressure. If you are able to, you can help food banks by volunteering to sort and distribute goods to service users. There are also options to donate financially to organisations like the Trussell Trust, which accept online donations to support their work. Food banks will also accept direct physical donations of food. Visit Give Food to find your closest food bank and the latest information. It also tells you which items they need to stock up on. See what items are typically provided in a food parcel here. 

There are opportunities to help other charities involved in food insecurity. Like food banks, all organisations will value both financial donations and volunteers. There are a number of charities that support people’s access to food, and most have an online presence. Some, like Sustain, play a role in campaigning for a healthy and sustainable food system. Joining the London Food Link is a way to support Sustain’s work whilst getting access and discounts to events and competitions. 

Other charities focus on food redistribution. This is an eco-friendly practice as it delivers potentially wasted food to those in need. Fareshare is a national charity active in London that takes surplus food from industry and gives it to charities and community groups who support those needing help getting balanced meals. The Felix Project has carried out similar work solely in London. Foodcycle redistributes food by providing free meals to community members. There’s also an opportunity to interact with other guests of the charity, helping reduce isolation. Food pantries also redistribute donated food to local communities by acting as low-cost, subscription-based grocery shops. 

Support change at a policy level

Much of the support for people facing food insecurity is provided by charities. But government investment in sustainable programmes could help provide equal access to nutritious food. It could relieve pressure on the charity sector and help fulfil its responsibility to safeguard its citizens. You can get in touch with your local MP to highlight that this is an important issue to their constituents and encourage them to act. 

There are also charity-lead campaigns that you can support, such as #EndChildFoodPoverty led by Marcus Rashford, which is currently campaigning to expand the Free School Meals programme. The Trussell Trust has several campaigns with a specific focus, including #5WEEKSTOOLONG, aimed at ending the five-week delay between applying and receiving universal credit. Another campaign is #KeepTheLifeline, to reinstate the £20 Universal Credit uplift in place during the height of the pandemic.

Importantly, their other research explores the relationship between foodbank use and debt to the government. It found that nearly half of the people referred to their food banks owe the government money through the benefits system. As a result, the Trussell Trust has called on the government to tackle flaws in the system that create debt and to increase payments in line with inflation. This issue is likely to become more urgent as the cost of living increases throughout the coming year.

More…

We’ll be publishing further blogs in the series soon, so check back in the future for more content. If you are interested in reading more on poverty and government policy in London, check out our levelling up blog.

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