How can we eliminate child food insecurity in the UK?

1.7 million UK children live in a household that does not have access to sufficient food to make up a healthy diet. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this number is expected to rise.

 

The Department of Health defines food poverty, or food insecurity, as the inability to afford or have access to food to make up a healthy diet. As there is no widely accepted definition of hunger, food insecurity is often used in its place

Food insecurity is more prevalent among children than adults, and more common among families with low incomes, lone-parents, and people living with long-term conditions. Households in the former industrial urban areas in the North and Midlands, some coastal towns, and a range of London boroughs are disproportionately represented.  

“Infancy and childhood are critical periods for growth and development, and good nutrition is important to obtain the best outcomes,” says Professor Mary Fewtrell, Nutrition Lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Poor diet can also lead to lower concentration and impact educational attainment.” 

Mary says that the link between poor diet and socioeconomic status is not just about education, but also about access to healthy food. Families know that fruit and vegetables are better than the empty calories offered by sugary foods, but may not be in a position to provide healthy alternatives. 

Food insecurity is a problem—and one that existed long before the coronavirus pandemic. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of foodbanks, seeks to provide food to those in need and stop UK hunger. From 2011 to 2019, it increased its three-day food parcel output from 61,000 to 1,583,000.  

More recently, the Trust has predicted a 61% increase in the number of food parcels needed in the coming months. Its latest report also confirms that families with children have been among those hit hardest by the pandemic.  

Galvanised by worrying statistics and personal experience, footballer Marcus Rashford is now leading a food poverty taskforce with supermarkets, businesses, and charities. The campaign seeks to bring adequate nutrition to the country’s most vulnerable children.   

“We work across the supply chain to redistribute nutritious, in-date, surplus food,” says Christie Garratt at FareShare, part of the food poverty taskforce. “And it’s not just about foodbanks—food might be what gets people through the door, but we work with projects that bring people together.  

“Associations between surplus food redistribution and expiring ‘yellow sticker’ items are misguided. We source food from manufacturers and farms often before it reaches a supermarket shelf. Nothing is distributed past its use-by date and the majority of food we send out is fresh as opposed to store cupboard items like tins.” 

FareShare works with 11,000 frontline charities across the UK—around two-thirds of these support families with children. By simultaneously fighting hunger and tackling food waste, FareShare is trying to turn an environmental problem into a social solution, building strong communities at the local level. 

What’s in store: mouths to feed and a growing need 

Natasha Ricketts runs the Evelyn Community Store in Deptford, south London, one of the frontline projects being supported by FareShare: “To use a foodbank, you need a referral. You can usually only visit a certain number of times, and there’s a lot of stigma. So we opted for a different model.” 

To access the store, local residents are invited to become members for £3.50 per week. For that, a member can get £20-25 of shopping. Natasha says that membership eliminates the stigma of charity, and that anyone who can’t pay will be offered food as well as support in accessing the right benefits.  

“Lots of our members say that their children, and they themselves, have never eaten so well. It's great to see children coming into the store and picking their own fruit and vegetables,” says Natasha. “We've created a space where people who would have passed each other in the street are now connecting.”   

Natasha says that hearing the stories from members has made her appreciate the value that the store brings to the community. The friendships formed at the store, for instance, allow residents to tap into each other’s abilities when they need access to different skills and support.  

Beyond the strong community, providing healthy food is an important service. A member who once had to feed her child by mashing bread with sugar and water, to create a porridge-like liquid dish, now has access to affordable fresh food—something that has become more difficult during the pandemic. 

“Through our projects, we provide 3 million meals per week, up from 1 million before COVID-19,” says Christie. “When we asked our projects, one-third said they would have shut down during lockdown without our support, and two-thirds think demand will either remain or rise in the coming months.”  

“COVID has been difficult for our community, especially those living in small tower block flats,” says Natasha. “When we reopened in June, some of the teenagers told me how tough it’d been. That it was the worst time of their life. That they were always hungry with hardly any food in the house.” 

The Food Foundation’s report of experiences under lockdown found that over 200,000 children had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food. In total, over five million people living in households with children experienced food insecurity after just one month of lockdown. 

Food insecurity is just one aspect of widening socioeconomic inequality—a process that is accelerating as a consequence of the pandemic. While food insecurity is itself a problem, it is also a symptom of wider issues disproportionately affecting vulnerable children and their families.   

“Without food, you can’t function properly,” says Natasha. “I look around at some of the problems facing young people in our community: mental health, crime, underperforming schools. And you have to ask yourself—why is that? Is it because they’re living in poverty at home?” 

Making poverty history: affordable housing, social security, and proper jobs 

Chris Goulden is Deputy Director of Evidence and Impact at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF): “Child food poverty is just one aspect of poverty. It’s a great campaign issue as it is something tangible that people can connect with and easily understand the injustice.” 

Chris says that while food is a brilliant way of engaging the public on the topic of poverty, it is emblematic of the wider issues that JRF seeks to improve—namely labour, housing, and social security. Chris says that the more people care about these issues, the better. 

JRF has written about the three systems we can redesign to end food poverty. They want to address low pay, build genuinely affordable homes, and strengthen Universal Credit. These crucial interventions have knock-on consequences for food insecurity—and illustrate how strands of socioeconomic inequality are intertwined. 

People living on low incomes spend more of their income than the average person on essentials like food, rent, utilities, and commuting. When finances take a hit, the food budget is often one of the few expenses that provides an option for cutting back.  

“Before COVID, most of our members were people on low incomes. And that’s not to say they weren’t working,” says Natasha. “Some were on the zero-hour contracts that many companies have abused. These people didn’t know if they’d get enough work to keep food on the table.” 

Chris’s team’s research shows that 72% of children in poverty have a parent in work, a figure that has been rising since the mid-1990s. In other words, families may have a person in work, but the jobs are inadequate—and are potentially keeping families trapped in poverty. 

“We’ve supported research that seeks to understand how much money matters,” says Chris. “It turns out that a boost to family income is the most effective way of improving a child’s outcomes—including cognitive development and school achievement. It improves so many aspects of life all at once.”  

Chris says that it is not immediately obvious why more money would lead to better outcomes, although suspected mechanisms include reduced parental stress and anxiety. In other words, there is a strong link between mental health and poverty. Poverty can have profound psychological effects

The Nudge Unit published a report exploring the impact of poverty in decision-making suggesting that the stress associated with poverty can cause people to make suboptimal decisions, including what to eat. Essentially, thinking about the future is replaced, by necessity, with day-to-day survival. 

The report advocates for policies rooted in behavioural science that support better decision-making. Any policies put in place should adopt a holistic approach, minimising the constraints that impact on quality of life. Such policies, if implemented, could radically improve the lives of vulnerable children.  

Let’s get it done: harvesting momentum for lasting change 

In August, the country grappled with the tragic death of Mercy Baguma, the Glasgow mother whose body was found next to her one-year-old son, who was "weakened from several days of starvation". Mercy lost her job after her right to work in the UK had expired and then struggled to make ends meet.  

Cases like Mercy’s highlight how vulnerable groups, such as asylum seekers, are at particular risk of food insecurity, especially during the pandemic. They also bring a human face to statistics. A GoFundMe has now raised £50,000 for her family and the Home Office is planning a full investigation

Such tragedies are avoidable, and illustrate immense public support for lasting change. In the run up to the summer holidays, Marcus Rashford successfully caused a government U-turn on the issue of free school meals, which were extended to 1.3 million children throughout the summer. 

His new taskforce is focused on food insecurity, and calls for the government to implement the three key recommendations put forward in the National Food Strategy. The report states that policies to address food insecurity will be essential in mitigating the economic damage caused by COVID-19. 

This includes expanding the eligibility of free school meals, extending summer holiday support to all children who receive free school meals, and increasing the value of and access to Healthy Start vouchers. This, the authors say, will provide food security for some of the country’s most vulnerable children. 

“What Marcus Rashford is doing is great, but the government should be doing this anyway,” says Natasha. “Our food store shouldn’t exist, because we shouldn’t have child food poverty. But we do exist because there’s a need there—and it’s growing.” 

Many furloughed parents have turned to foodbanks, “genuinely terrified” about feeding their children during the pandemic. At some foodbanks, volunteers are reporting that need has quadrupled since lockdown began. And in the absence of lasting policy, the situation is set to continue. 

“Last year, the government launched a Food Waste Reduction Fund,” says Christie. “It’s cheaper for the food industry to turn surplus food into animal feed or landfill waste. But this funding allowed us, for the first time, to make redistribution cost neutral. We offset their costs and diverted that surplus to people who need it. 

“This allowed us to provide 30 million extra meals, most of which was fruit and veg. It also demonstrated that being cost neutral is incentive enough for the food industry. With demand set to remain or increase, we need this funding to continue once the pilot runs out at the end of this month.” 

“There have been some good moves from the government, including support for furloughed workers and a rise in Universal Credit that outstrips any other in recent history” says Chris. “The risk is that as this support is unwound, we will return to high levels of poverty—worsened by economic recession.  

“It’s difficult to predict what will happen post-COVID. But in terms of policy, we need to make those temporary measures permanent. There are going to be millions of people struggling to make ends meet. Unless that support outlasts the recession itself.”  

Earlier this year we released our State of Child Health report, which revealed a widening gap between the health of children from wealthy and deprived backgrounds. Food insecurity is an issue that permeates into many health indicators—and one that the government must solve if we wish to unlock opportunity and truly level up every child in the country.