Mapping the extent of adult food insecurity in the UK

By Dr Megan Blake and Dr Adam Whitworth, University of Sheffield and Dr Angelo Moretti, Manchester Metropolitan University
View the UK food insecurity Map

In the UK many are not food secure.

Food security is the ability to consistently afford, access and utilise the food needed to maintain good health and wellbeing. When we think of food insecurity, we tend to think of it in relation to low-income countries. More recently, however, as a nation, we are beginning to recognise that a significant proportion of the UK population is not food secure. Much of this awareness-raising has been as a result of efforts by food charities and campaigns such as that spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.

While this awareness-raising has been welcome, the focus has been on those who are at the sharpest end of food insecurity; those who are skipping meals for a whole day not out of choice. Food banks have been set up in communities where people have recognised this problem of hunger with the intention of meeting immediate food needs. Hunger is understood as having been hungry at least once in the previous month but were unable to get food. This is our first measure.

We identify two further measures:

  • Those who struggle include people who have cut back on food or skipped meals. In addition, they have received support from their community with food essentials, or they indicated they could not get to the shops, could not get a delivery, or were too ill to get food. Those who experience these additional indicators of food insecurity are not typically included in the statistics, which tend to focus on financial reasons for food insecurity.
  • The last measure are those who worry about being able to adequately supply the food they need for themselves and their families. This latter group are typically considered marginally food secure because they have enough food. However, they may have traded down on the nutritional quality of the food they purchase. We have included this category because there is firstly mental stress associated with food worry. Secondly, these are people who are at risk of having low or very low food security, for example, through an unexpected expense, illness or relationship breakdown. We have seen many people over the period of the pandemic who have fallen from this group into the other types of food insecurity.

The burden of these forms of food insecurity includes immediate threats to health and wellbeing. This burden includes the stress of trying to manage a budget that may not extend sufficiently, the worry about providing adequate nutrition, and the mental load associated with trying to navigate limitations imposed by transportation, inadequate equipment, cost, physical ability and household food preferences.

Trading down on food quality and nutrition extracts a price to physical health in terms of diet-related illness, but it also results in narrower diets and the loss of understanding about what certain foods are and how to cook them. Finally, research demonstrates that those who struggle to access food are also isolated, which has an impact on quality of life and wellbeing.

Food insecurity is concentrated into places. What this means is that cumulatively the effects of food insecurity include reductions in the ability of a community to be resilient in the face of crisis because community-based social networks have been lost. Local foodscapes have become food deserts because the demand for and the supply of healthy food is not present in the place where people live at a price they can afford. The burden of food insecurity also means that people in these communities struggle to see how they can contribute to achieving wider social and environmental goals that shape life in the UK today and help define us as a society.

Many local governments have spent considerable time and resources enabling access to food by supporting food banks whilst also moving those using food banks onward. Many are also looking at ways to support those who are moderately food insecure and those who are worried about being able to purchase food that contributes to their health, social and local economic wellbeing.

Until now, however, there has not been an estimate of these three levels of food insecurity at the local authority scale across the whole of the UK. The UK Local Government food security estimates were developed to help provide local level benchmarking. The purpose is to inform the types of services and support that are needed to achieve food security for everyone and to move beyond a focus on food banks.

For those interested in seeing the overall patterns of food insecurity across the UK an interactive map is available. Users are able to turn on and off the individual layers to investigate patterns of food insecurity across the three measures or leave all the levels visible to get an overall visual impression. We highlight that there is evidence of food insecurity in every locality across the UK, however, there are some areas that are more food secure compared to others. Across the whole of the UK, approximately one-third of local authorities fall into the two quintiles with the least food insecurity in all three measures. These are largely concentrated in the east of England. Conversely, more than half of the localities have at least one measure of food insecurity that ranks among the highest two quintiles, with high concentrations of these being in Wales, Northern Ireland, the North of England and the Southwest of England.

Although we plan to apply the estimations to ongoing work, we recognise that it could be of considerable benefit to other researchers, policymakers, and analysts and have thus made the estimations freely available via the Food Foundation. We encourage researchers and policymakers to:
– Consider ways to provide support that extends beyond addressing the immediate food needs of the severely food insecure and use these data as a benchmark to demonstrate improvement over time.
– Use the data to inform local and national policy debates that have implications for either exacerbating food insecurity or increasing food security across the UK.

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Uniting UK and South African research to support food systems policy

A new collaboration has been forged between the Food Systems Policy Hub, the British High Commission in Pretoria and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in South Africa that aims to aid innovation and food security through supporting coherent food systems policy making.

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub hosted a roundtable in collaboration with the British High Commission, to discuss shared challenges in the agritech sector, and opportunities to work together to collectively solve them.

Participants at the meeting included experts from both the UK and South Africa. From the UK, the group heard from Professors Katherine Denby, University of York, and Tim Benton and Caroline Orfila, both University of Leeds, who shared their research spanning crop selection, nutrition sensitivity and policy support.

South African speakers included Dr Maneshree Jugmohan-Naidu, from the Republic of South Africa’s DSI; Professor Lisa Korsten, University of Pretoria, DSI/ NRF Centre of Excellence Food Security, and Professor Albert Modi, College of Agriculture Engineering & Science, University of KwaZulu Natal. They stressed the importance of utilising technology to improve nutrition, addressing both consumer and environmental health, and retaining local knowledge in relation to both farming, trade and linking production directly with markets.

Professor Bob Doherty, director of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, said: “We discussed interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research involving communities and the private sector, and the connections throughout the food system, as well as trade, the diversity of farmers, and formal and informal markets, which is a really important distinction to make.

“As a result, we’ve identified three key areas for future collaboration, and I’m sure there will be more to come post this exemplary round table. It is really exciting and there is real opportunity here for this to be the start of something special.”

The three areas being taken forward for future collaboration are knowledge platforms to support further deliberation on the following:

– Technologies for niche, indigenous crops and underutilised crops to support smallholder farmers with food and nutrition security
– Agritech supporting expansion UK/South Africa agrifood trade
– Coherent policy making through a food systems approach with an emphasis on innovation and practical solutions.

Aidan Darker, from the British High Commission in Pretoria, said: “The agri-tech sector is a high priority not just for South Africa but for the UK. We wanted to hear about the challenges and the issues that we face in this sector and how we can address them and work together to collaborate even further.

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