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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