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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Sparking interest in community vertical farming

By Professor Katherine Denby, N8 AgriFood Academic Lead at the University of York, and Fix Our Food Lead for Grow It York

In this blog I will focus on indoor vertical farming under controlled environmental conditions.

Vertical farming is a sector on the rise. It involves growing fresh produce on walls or in stacked beds – these can be outdoors where the climate permits, or indoors under natural or controlled lighting conditions. Plants are typically grown without soil on matting and irrigated using hydroponics or aeroponics. In hydroponic systems plant roots are submerged in nutrient solution (often with cycles of submergence) whereas aeroponics uses technology to spray the plant roots with a fine mist. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture to provide fertiliser to the plants from the fish waste.

Indoor vertical farming will not replace existing agricultural methods for food production but has much to contribute to developing a food system that delivers healthy, affordable, accessible diets from a healthy planet and supports a thriving and equitable food economy. Vertical farming systems significantly reduce the water use for production; water is recycled in the system and directly applied to plant roots. The indoor farm is protected from the weather and can deliver produce the year round. Often farms are located close to food businesses that will use the produce or consumers who directly buy, greatly reducing the distance food needs to travel and helping support localised supply chains which can be more resilient in the face of global shocks, such as Covid 19, or significant changes to international trade as we have seen with the UK’s EU exit. Localised production and supply chains also promote the local economy; money is spent locally and the vertical farm can stimulate local enterprises such as food processors and retail. Shorter supply chains impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions too – a recent analysis (EDGAR-FOOD*) demonstrated that the GHG emissions associated with food transport, cold chain and packaging were considerable (~5% total emissions each) and what’s more, have increased since 1990. Reducing food waste at all parts of the supply chain is a vital component of sustainable agriculture with the level of control in vertical farming meaning minimal loss during production, and the short growing cycles from controlled lighting giving farms the flexibility to adapt to changing produce demands.

A major component of agriculture’s GHG emissions results from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser (the manufacturing process causes significant CO2 and NO2 release). Vertical farming technology greatly reduces the use of synthetic fertiliser along with little or no use of agri chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. However, the often cited drawback of vertical farming in controlled environments is the high energy use (per kg of produce) for lighting and climate control. The GHG emissions associated with an indoor vertical farm depend on the LED lighting efficiency but most significantly on the source of energy being used (renewable versus non renewable). With renewable energy sources, GHG emissions from vertical farming can be significantly lower than traditional greenhouse horticulture production in many countries.

One of the most significant contributions that vertical farming has the potential to address is land use efficiency and public health outcomes from our food system. Over 70% of the UK’s land is already used for agriculture and whilst traditionally agriculture has been a rural affair, vertical farming offers the potential for production of fresh produce in urban areas. Vertical farms have high yield per area meaning viable farms can be sited in areas with limited space and/or high land value. Rapid urbanisation is a global phenomenon and with a common neglect of food in urban planning has led to the development of urban food insecurity. Food deserts abound – neighbourhoods with limited access to affordable healthy food, where available food outlets are typically convenience stores and fast food shops with imperishable and often highly processed food – contributing to obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Locating vertical farms within food deserts can improve access to nutritious food and can increase citizen’s agency within the food system. Closer connection between producers and consumers provides greater transparency about production and promotes enhanced consumption of fresh produce. This will require community engagement around sustainable diets and food systems, as well as affordability of the produce

Vertical farms are popping up around the world and York is no exception – we have recently started Grow It York, a vertical farm located within a shipping container in Spark York, a CIC in the centre of York. We want Grow It York to empower the local community around fresh produce – reducing transport, waste and packaging of fresh produce for local food businesses, increasing access to quality nutritious food, providing educational opportunities and engaging the community in building a sustainable food system. We are using Grow It York for more than just food production; to explore how we best integrate vertical farming into urban communities for social, economic and environmental benefits.

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Working together to create a better food and farming system in the North

By Dr Rachel Marshall, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Lancaster University, with insights shared by the Northern Real Farming Conference team

The inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference (NRFC) saw farmers, food producers and others with a stake, or interest in, regenerative food systems in the North of England and Scotland gather online for two weeks of inspiring discussions, talks and virtual tours in October 2020.

With over 65 sessions to choose from, the themes explored were diverse and covered the breadth of the food production systems in our region, from upland landscapes to our urban areas.

There were contributions from right across our food systems from farmers, vets, conservation groups, ecologists, food activists, nutritionists, food hubs and more. Across this wide range of subjects and perspectives, some clear themes emerged from the conference.

Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of creating and being part of farming and food systems that work better – for us as farmers, conservationists, activists, communities, citizens. We heard from farmers who had set up new online shops during COVID-19, about urban opportunities and land ownership options, and gained an insight into the benefits of community supported agriculture models.

We explored seed saving and also looked at the urgency, and difficulties, of producing for local needs rather than commodity markets, and how questions of land ownership in particular are entangled with the viability of creating ‘small farm futures’.
Understanding strength in diversity also emerged as a key theme – from diversity in crops, business models and supply chains, to the people working on the land.

Right from the opening session, we were reflecting on the question of which voices were not included in the event, and how could we bring them in. A socially just farming and food system requires us to ensure that all voices are heard and we all, collectively, need to do more to ensure that this happens throughout our processes and systems, as well as to enable new entrant farmers from a range of backgrounds.

There is a need for collaboration and dialogue as we work to create a better food and farming system in the North. The importance of sharing perspectives and knowledge, both within the farming community and beyond, came through strongly in the sessions that focussed on upland farming and landscapes. The need to create space for conversation and dialogue arose in many other themes; from discussions around land access and ownership to the value of connecting urban communities more closely with the people producing their food.

After two weeks immersed in this community of 500+ conference participants, I feel inspired by this growing movement calling for people, rather than corporations, to shape and change our food system for the better. Given my involvement with the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, I started to question what policies are needed to create an enabling environment for the ideas and innovations shared at NRFC to flourish.

Defra’s Environment Land Management scheme (ELMs) and the potential for farmers to be paid to manage their land for public goods (for instance, clean air, clean water and biodiversity) was a subject of a number of sessions. This included a session looking at what this approach meant in practical and economic terms for farmers around Pendle Hill, a well-known feature in the Lancashire uplands. Another session explored an innovative approach to ELMs, which showed how permaculture design provides a pathway to farmers looking to diversify their land, improve soil and biodiversity, and generate income.

However, there were also concerns that ELMs might not offer much to support smaller scale farmers and growers in their key role in producing nutritious food. There is also the ongoing wider debate around UK agriculture and trade policies, in particular the risk that new trade deals might result in markets being dominated by cheap food, produced to lower standards undermining UK producers.

We should instead be taking this opportunity to rewrite our relationships with trading partners to put nutritious, healthy food, produced using regenerative methods, at the heart of our policies.

The word innovation is often used across the policy and research sectors and there was much to be learnt from innovators within this real farming community. There were sessions that looked at innovative business models, land ownership and routes to market, as well as a fascinating session sharing approaches taken by Japanese farmers to address the decline of their marginal hill farming businesses and communities.

Innovation can be about learning and adapting existing approaches; we have much to learn from other farming and cultural practices around the world, as well as the potential to uncover lost wisdom. We need to design policy and research that supports not just technical innovation, but socio-economic innovation, whilst enabling the sharing of knowledge between different communities of practice.

Despite the inaugural NRFC being an online event, with limited opportunities for those free flowing, often late night conversations that put the world to rights, the importance of the growing movement in the North is key. Building on these past two weeks, the NRFC team have secured funding for regional networking events over the coming year in addition to a second NRFC.

For those of you who missed out and are looking for some inspiration for your next research project, policy discussion or even your own farming journey, all the conference sessions are being made available on the NRFC website.

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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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