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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Addressing poverty cannot be achieved via focus on food

By Dr Maddy Power, Welcome Trust Research Fellow, University of York

“Our scope does not cover the economic measures required to structure a fairer society, nor have we been asked to suggest changes to the benefits system more broadly. Ideally, of course, the true cost of eating healthily should be calculated into benefits payments.” (p. National Food Strategy p. 63)

Henry Dimbleby is upfront in Part 2 of his National Food Strategy that commentary or recommendations relating to social security or wages are outside of his remit. One might argue he has been set a rather impossible task: to review access to food without making recommendations on how we as a society ensure that people have the resources they need to purchase that food.

His analysis and recommendations therefore focus on changing eating habits and targeted food- based interventions for children. In a  section on dietary inequalities, he details the high-fat, high sugar diets of people living on low incomes and outlines the associated sharp variation in different dietary related conditions according to the affluence of an area. He attempts to debunk stigmatising and individualising narratives responsibilising food poverty and obesity, writing:

“By now some readers may be writhing irritably in their seats, wondering whatever happened to personal responsibility. The wartime generation managed to survive on scraps through careful budgeting and menu planning. Lentils are cheap. Isn’t eating badly a symptom of laziness, rather than just poverty? … The fact is, we live in a completely different food landscape from that of our thrifty grandparents. As we saw in the previous chapter, unhealthy food is cheaper per calorie than healthy food. This is especially true when you factor in the “opportunity cost” of cooking from scratch. If you’re tired and short of time – and especially if you’re not a confident cook – it makes economic sense to buy a box of chicken and chips instead of toiling at the stove. Especially as you can be sure the kids will eat it, so there’s no danger of it going to waste.” (p.61-62)

Dimbleby rightly critiques these narratives, pointing to the high cost of ‘healthy food’ and the ‘opportunity cost’ of cooking from scratch. And yet, Dimbleby gives too much ground by paying heed at all to these widely discredited stigmatising tropes. This is especially the case given the report’s heavy focus on food habits and, as a (stated) consequence of its remit, neglect of the structural drivers of poverty. This then gives credibility and ground to the re-orientation of poverty as ‘food poverty’ or ‘food insecurity’. The inability to purchase an adequate diet is reframed as a question of nutrition and food skills not income poverty. The report may speak well to questions of international trade standards and green farming but if ‘economic measures required to structure a fairer society’ are outside of its remit it arguably cannot speak to questions of (food) poverty.

The recommendations reflect this tension at the heart of the report’s assessment of dietary inequalities, tackling the symptom of poverty (food) rather than the cause (low income). Child poverty is addressed by increasing the eligibility threshold for Free School Meals and extending funding for the Holiday and Activities programme for the next three years, while poor culinary skills are targeted via a reboot of food education in schools. Increasing the eligibility for Free School Meals is a much needed policy change which will improve the lives of over 1 million children, while continuation of the Holiday Food and Activity Programme will provide food and entertainment to thousands of children in the school holidays. But the reason these children need food support both in school and during the holidays is testament to the fact that their parents are living in poverty and unable to afford food for their  children (and themselves). Further recommendations on food poverty and poor diet are flavoured with a strong paternalistic slant: a tax on sugar and salt to increase the cost of ‘unhealthy’ food, and a proposal for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients who are obese and/or diabetic, and likely to be living in deprived communities.

It can be unfashionable to point out the reality that food poverty is a symptom of income poverty and, as such, requires income-based solutions. While well-meaning in its intentions, a report on access to ‘food’ can only report on just
that if it finds space to discuss and propose solutions to poverty.

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School food has a proven track record in reducing child food poverty

By Dr Charlotte Evans, School of Food Science and Nutrition, Faculty of Environment, University of Leeds

Recently Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, took on the government again, with a petition to provide school meal vouchers in school holidays, which has now been signed by more than a million people.

The vote was defeated by 322 to 261. This was a disappointing result given the long successful history of school food policies in this country, particularly for those on lower incomes. Affordable, high quality school food is important for all children, as well as offering a way to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, improve educational attainment and reduce inequalities. It is cheap at the price.

School food in the UK has a long history

School food programmes have been an important aspect of government policy since education was made mandatory. In Victorian times charities provided food to children in poverty and then later free and nutritious school food was provided nationally to ensure pupils were fit for war or employment[1]. Children grew taller and were better nourished and standards for school meals were introduced. After many decades of subsidy and standards, support for school food (together with other services) all but disappeared with the new Thatcher government in 1979. Standards were dropped and school meals became much more dependent on market forces. Young children were customers and were regularly served pizza, turkey twizzlers and chips at school. In 2006 after years of discussion, and as a result of the rise in childhood obesity since the 1980s, new mandatory standards were introduced. This was strongly supported by the TV chef Jamie Oliver whose campaign for better quality school meals included creating memorable scenes of carnage as he put all the unsavoury ingredients of a turkey twizzler into a blender in front of shocked 14 year olds.

The nutritional quality of school food has undoubtedly improved in the last 15 years and the food based standards are overseen by the School Food Plan[2]. Additionally, the universal infant free school meals have been introduced for 4-6 year olds in England. However, the number of older children having a school meal remains low, partly due to the cost, and is less than 50% in many schools with the majority of children having a packed lunch which is typically poor quality[3].

Free school meals don’t reach everyone they could help

The number of children in food poverty remains high in this country and not all of those children in low income households are eligible for free school meals. Whilst the proportion of children in poverty is estimated at between 30 and 40%, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals is much lower at 18%.[4]. Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated what was an already desperate situation in terms of the extent of children in poverty in the UK. This was summed up in the scathing report by the United Nations Rapporteur on extreme poverty [5]. Professor Philip Alston reported in his statement that “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” There are currently alarming increases in the number of households claiming Universal Credit and the number of families using food banks. Poverty negatively affects children’s health with higher levels of obesity seen in children living in more deprived households. Tragically, these differences in obesity prevalence between children in households with lowest and highest income have grown from 9% to 15% over 10 years[6]. Good quality school food can help tackle these high obesity rates.

Investments in school food improves health, equity and community

There are signs that the government may consider taking further action and extending the reach of school food in deprived communities to reduce food poverty. The recommendations recently put forward in the National Food Strategy, commissioned by the current government and led by Henry Dimbleby, state that free school meals should be extended to all those families claiming Universal Credit which would cover 30% of school children. The cost of this would be approximately £670million, a small fraction of the amount currently spent on obesity related healthcare. There is ample evidence from many countries across the globe that school food programmes are beneficial in improving education and health, and are highly cost effective. High and middle income countries where school food is free for all or heavily subsidised such as Sweden, Japan and Nigeria have shown that investment in school food leads to improvements in children’s health and equity, as well as benefitting the wider community (World Bank).

High quality and affordable school food successfully improves children’s diets and reduces inequalities. Feeding more children at school and tackling holiday hunger is therefore a priority to reduce food poverty.

The failure to secure holiday time support for those eligible for free school meals was disheartening and severely misjudged the mood in this country. Many united behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign; including hard hit councils, restaurants and cafes who offered free food for families during the October half term holiday.


1. Evans, C. and C. Harper, A history and review of school meal standards in the UK. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2009. 22(2): p. 89-99.
2. Department of Education. The School Food Plan. 2014; Available from:
3. Evans, C.E.L., et al., A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open, 2020. 10(1): p. e029688.
4. Taylor, C., The Reliability of Free School Meal Eligibility as a Measure of Socio-Economic Disadvantage: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study in Wales. British Journal of Educational Studies, 2018. 66(1): p. 29-51.
5. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom. 2018.
6. Public Health England (PHE), Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England – 2020 [NS]. 2020.

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Procuring food for the future

By Dr Neil Boyle, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds

Public food procurement is increasingly promoted at a national and local level as an instrument through which a better UK food system can be advanced.

Due to their size and purchasing power, large public sector bodies or so called ‘anchor institutions’ – such as hospitals, schools and prisons – have the potential to wield significant influence on the local food systems in which they are embedded.

Public procurement practice that incorporates sustainability principles can make a strategic contribution to local food systems by prioritising food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that contribute to local economies and livelihoods, provide social benefits, are protective of flora and fauna, and maximise usage and minimises waste.

N8 AgriFood researchers at the University of Leeds (Diane Ryland and Sonja Woodcock) and Lancaster University (Dr Rachel Marshall and Dr Rebecca Whittle) have collaborated with practitioners from their local sustainable food partnerships (Lucy Antal from FeedBack and Anna Clayton from FoodFutures: North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Partnership) to examine the procurement practices of anchor institutions in Leeds and Lancaster from a sustainability perspective.

We conducted interviews with food procurement managers for schools, hospitals and university catering to gain insight into how sustainability is being incorporated into practice. Alongside this, researchers from the School of Law at the University of Leeds conducted an analysis of current UK and EU food procurement law to map out the existing legislative landscape, and glimpse over the parapet at the post EU exit terrain.

We found examples of positive steps towards the use of public procurement to promote sustainable local food systems in both cities. The concept of social value – the additional value to the wider community created by procurement activity – is being incorporated into practice.

For example, working proactively with local suppliers to meet procurement contracts directly benefits the local economy in terms of investment and employment. Procuring local, seasonal food reduces environmental impact by cutting ‘food miles’. Food is distributed locally, to feed school children for example, ensuring the availability of food of high nutritional quality for the local population.

However, whilst there is a convergence of interest in using procurement as a force to drive positive change, significant barriers restrict the abilities of institutions to procure food with sustainability in mind. Firstly, there is very little regulatory steer on sustainability in procurement practice. Neither UK nor EU procurement law actively mandates sustainability.

In the absence of clear regulatory directives on sustainability, small-scale sustainable food suppliers find it difficult to engage with and compete for tenders. Cost and capacity remains a major issue for small-scale producers who struggle to compete with economies of scale. Dynamic procurement systems as being piloted by Crown Commercial Services show promise of an innovative route by which small suppliers can access procurement contracts.

Another challenge is matching the values and ambition of a sustainable procurement strategy to the values of the businesses procured from. For instance, greater transparency is needed around the sustainability criteria and food miles associated with large scale distributors.

It is clear that more action is needed if the sustainability promoting potential of anchor institutions is to be fully realised. Procurement has an important role to play in supporting a more local, sustainable and resilient UK food system. As the UK leaves the EU, there is an opportunity to better enshrine principles of sustainability into public procurement law to promote social and economic value, as well as prioritise the sustainability of agricultural systems and landscapes on which we depend.

A full list of actions we consider necessary to promote sustainable procurement practice in anchor institutions can be found in our full report, which will be published in October 2020. Find out more about the review of procurement regulation at both EU and national level.

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Producing a POSTnote: exploring food system resilience during COVID-19

By Joe Llanos, N8 AgriFood Policy Fellow, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield

N8 AgriFood teamed up with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which runs a Policy Fellowship process, offering a three-month placement to doctoral students with the chance to gain valuable policy experience. The placement was awarded to Joe Llanos, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Here, Joe looks back on his time working in Westminster.

In January, I began a three-month placement with POST, funded and supported by N8 AgriFood. The objective of the placement is for PhD researchers like myself to gain first-hand experience of working with policymakers, including producing a briefing note for MPs and Peers on a current topical issue.

These briefings, called POSTnotes, are concise, independent and balanced reports that enable policymakers to take evidence-based decisions on current topical issues. The POSTnote I have been working on looks at the issue of resilience in the food system. I aim to outline how resilience is defined, why it is needed and what a more resilient UK food system could look like, as well as possible ways to achieve it.

I have been asked to reflect on my time working with the excellent team at POST. When I first applied for N8 AgriFood’s POST fellowship scheme, I was excited by the chance to learn new things, meet new people and get a taste of life in Parliament and the policy arena. However, I can safely say I had no idea how valuable the experience would prove to be.

As well as having the opportunity to work inside Parliament and witness first-hand the response to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, I’ve also been able to work with some amazing people, improve my skill-sets and gain valuable experiences for my career going forwards.

How it all began

After moving to London, the first few weeks of my placement were all about getting to grips with working in Westminster, learning the ins and outs of Parliament and delving into my topic of food system resilience. As a final year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, my research looks at soil biodiversity and agriculture, so I had some experience of working on a small subsection of the wider food system.

Having the opportunity to look at the broader context of my research was fascinating, and I suddenly found myself grappling with unfamiliar papers and new terms covering all the different aspects of food from across the environmental, socioeconomic, health and political spheres. This early deep dive into the topic was essential for me to get to grips with the complexities involved in the food system, and I was supported by my advisor from POST along the way. There were a number of other POST Fellows working on different topics who started at the same time, and we benefited from collective training on how to effectively conduct literature reviews, find good sources of information and shape our writing for policymakers.

Getting lost in Westminster

Alongside getting to grips with our topic, we were encouraged to get out into the Parliamentary estate and immerse ourselves in the goings on of Parliament. We were given a tour of the two Houses, where we learnt all about the incredible history of democracy in the UK. For example, did you know that the Government and opposition benches in the House of Commons are two sword lengths apart? I didn’t either.

Attending meetings and events with MPs and Peers, watching Prime Minister’s Questions from the balcony and getting lost in the maze of corridors and staircases between the House of Commons and House of Lords became regular activities. POST also arranged training and meetings with staff from Select Committees and other Parliamentary departments, so we could learn about the structures of Parliament and how scientific evidence is used when building policy.

Meeting the experts

In February, I began the next phase of my placement. This involved interviewing experts from academia, industry, NGOs and the Government to shape the content of the briefing and delve into the resilience of the food system further. I spoke with more than 20 experts and our conversations covered all different aspects of food.

They ranged from discussing specific technologies used in the food system, to broader questions about its moral responsibilities – and everything in between. I feel very lucky to have had so many insightful conversations on such an important and timely topic. Having seen some of the amazing research taking place outside of London, I was keen to get contributions from across the country, and I’m very grateful for all the experts who gave up their time to talk to me, including those involved in the N8 AgriFood programme.

The arrival of COVID-19

Towards the end of February, cases of COVID-19 began to rise here in the UK. Parliament began to offer new guidelines on working and talk of a ‘virtual Parliament’ began, something unprecedented in its 700-year history. It was around this time, when I developed mild symptoms of COVID-19 and followed the instructions to self isolate.

During my self isolation, the decision was taken for POST staff to move to remote working and all the necessary arrangements were quickly put into place. After completing my self isolation and with only a few weeks left on my accommodation contract, I boarded an almost empty coach back to Sheffield just before the lockdown to continue the rest of my placement from home.

Despite the unexpected conclusion of my placement, the experience has really highlighted the important behind-the-scenes work that goes into making sure Parliament runs smoothly and can perform its duties. Under normal circumstances there are thousands of staff working hard to achieve this, and this was even more evident with the rapid switch to remote working and establishment of a virtual Parliament.

The POST team have also responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, putting together a database of relevant experts and producing a number of quick response briefings that summarise the current evidence available. Getting reliable, accurate and timely information to policymakers is crucial, and so POST’s work is needed now more than ever.

What’s next?

I have now finished writing my POSTnote on resilience in the food system, which is going through an extensive process of review before publication. The outbreaks of panic buying in supermarkets and the difficulties of securing workers to harvest domestic produce have shown that COVID-19 is posing significant challenges to our food system. The issue of food system resilience and therefore the POSTnote have never been more relevant. I hope that when it is published it will be a helpful review, which enables policymakers to make important decisions that promote a more resilient and sustainable food system.

For me, it will be back to finishing my PhD and writing up my thesis. Although my time working in Parliament has come to an end, the things I have learnt, experiences I have had and the brilliant people I have met along the way will stay with me for a long time.

You can read Joe’s POSTnote entitled ‘A resilient UK food system’ here. For more information about POST and to view their current work, please visit the POST website.

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