UK household food insecurity: the importance of income

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Stark new food insecurity statistics highlight how many young people and those on low incomes are struggling to get enough food to eat.

Food security figures released last week by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) show that 13 per cent of UK adults are only marginally food secure and that 8 per cent have low or very low food security. These new statistics represent an important step-change in our knowledge on household food insecurity in the UK. Based on a considerably bigger sample than the recent UN FAO statistics, this survey provides a comprehensive insight into the magnitude of the problem and who is at increased risk.

What is most striking about these figures is how food insecurity is found to disproportionately affect younger people and those living on low incomes. Younger people were far more likely to report some level of food insecurity, with a third of respondents aged between 16 and 24 saying they often or sometimes worried that the household food would run out before there was money to buy more. This compares with just 6-7 per cent of those aged 65 and over. The findings for ‘food insecure’ households (where diets had been changed or people had gone without food) also reflected this divide: 16 per cent of respondents aged 16-24 and 11 per cent aged 25-34 were food insecure; compared to 1-2 per cent of those aged 65 or over. 34 per cent of people in the lowest income quartile also reported that they often or sometimes worried about running out of food before there was money to buy more, compared with 7 per cent in the highest quartile. Just under a quarter (23 per cent) of those in the lowest income quartile were found to be food insecure, compared to 3 per cent in the highest income decile. Given that this data is not adjusted, it is likely that the high prevalence of food insecurity amongst younger people is due to the underlying problem of low income. 

Whilst this will not be surprising to many people engaged in debates on poverty and inequality, these statistics are particularly concerning when they are put into the context of future rises in inflation and projected increases in poverty levels. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) both released findings last month which highlighted how badly people on low incomes, especially those with families, will fare over the coming years.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and IFS have found that ‘for the worst-off 15 per cent of households, real incomes after deducting housing costs (AHC) are projected to be lower on average in 2021–22 than in 2014–15’. CPAG’s analysis of the impact of changes to tax credits and universal credit also paints a worrying picture. This finds that families will lose on average £960 a year (£2,380 for lone parent families and £2,540 for families with three children by 2020).

These figures – combined with the new FSA findings – are a stark warning to policy makers. The inability to access a varied, healthy diet, in socially acceptable ways is a key determinant of health and social exclusion. Cumulatively, these findings suggest food insecurity will rise over the next five years, as the most food insecure segment of the population is set to see their income reduce even further. 

In the wake of the FSA’s findings, many people will be looking to identify tangible and effective policy solutions. Two elements within these will be key. bIn the first instance, policy makers will need to prioritise household economic security if they hope to protect the health and wellbeing of people and their families. The FSA figures clearly show that household income must be central to social policy discussions and decisions. Within these discussions, the role of welfare cuts will need to be addressed, as evidence indicates that these will have a profound effect on the financial security of the most economically vulnerable into the future. 

Secondly, the generational divide embedded within the FSA figures will also need to be examined. The heavy burden of food insecurity being felt by those under the age of 24 – compared to pensioner households – raises further questions about how to improve the uneven distribution of household incomes across generations. These statistics show how important guaranteeing incomes can be. The findings that pensioner household are at such a significantly lower risk of food insecurity (of between 1-2 per cent) indicate the importance of incomes that are secure (not conditioned) and that keep pace with the cost of living. It is likely that if such policies were applied to working-age groups we would see reduced levels of food insecurity across the population.

Children’s experiences of food insecurity were not collected by the FSA for their survey, but with absolute child poverty also set to rise (from 27.5 per cent to 30.3 per cent by 2021/22) it is highly likely that we will see corresponding increases in child hunger. Social policies will therefore also need to explicitly address the equity of experiences of income inadequacy and insecurity across the life course.

Of course, food insecurity also reflects other policy concerns – which will need to be addressed at the current juncture in national policy making. Food insecurity raises questions about the extent to which our food production and food retail systems are adequate and sustainable; and questions about whether households have adequate physical access to affordable and healthy food. These are questions that have recently largely gone unmeasured and unexplored in the UK. But in the context of the inclusive growth agenda, the question of local community infrastructure and the future for the development of deprived communities is once again being raised and there are important opportunities for progressive area-based policy making.

The FSA’s findings provide a much-needed baseline of evidence on household food insecurity in the UK. The data will, however, need to be collected regularly and further explored in order for us to understand in more detail the particular dynamics of food insecurity. In the first instance, however, the findings shine an important light on the extent to which the young and low income households struggle to eat, prompting urgent questions for contemporary social policy.

 

This blog was originally posted on the SPERI Comment blog and is reproduced with permission.


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