One in four low-income households struggles to eat regularly or healthily because of a lack of money, according to the first substantial survey into the scale of food insecurity in the UK.
The survey showed that food insecurity was more highly concentrated among the unemployed, over a third of whom reported that they had either reduced the quality of their diet, or missed meals out altogether, because they had insufficient cash to buy food.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) carried out the survey as part of its biennial look at consumer attitudes to food. It categorised 8% of all respondents as having low or very low food security, suggesting that almost four million adults regularly struggle to put food on the table.
Nutrition experts said the findings confirmed fears that the poorest families struggled to eat well, and called on ministers to review the impact of welfare cuts. Although the FSA did not speculate on why some households were more at risk, other studies have shown that benefit freezes coupled with rising food prices are a big driver of food insecurity.
Rachel Loopstra, lecturer in nutrition at King’s College London, said: “These robust survey data confirm how serious the scale of the problem of people not having enough money for food to eat is in the UK, and are consistent with reports of increasing food bank usage.
“It is shocking that, at minimum, 17% of adults are worrying about their food supplies running out before they have enough money to buy more, and unacceptable that 8% of adults have had to eat less, experienced hunger, or at worse, gone whole days without eating because they lack money for food.”
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation thinktank, said: “These data are truly shocking. To take so many British people off the breadline the government must drive uptake of the Healthy Start programme for young and low-income mothers, tackle gaps in food provision during school holidays, and review our welfare policies to protect the diets of society’s most vulnerable.”
Campaigners and MPs have called for the UK government to regularly monitor food insecurity, a request that ministers have so far rejected. However, the Scottish government has agreed to implement a food insecurity measure.
Last year the Food Foundation adapted UN figures, using 2014 data, to indicate that more than eight million people in Britain lived in food-insecure households. However, the FSA survey is more up to date – having been carried out in 2016 – and three times the size of the earlier report.
The FSA survey showed that women (10%) were more likely than men (6%) to live in food-insecure households. While 16% of young people aged 16-24 and 11% of 25- to 34-year-olds were food insecure, this shrank to just 1-2% for over 65s.
The FSA’s Food and You report adapted an established US government survey used to categorise respondent households on a scale of vulnerability to food insecurity; it included questions on whether people worried their food would run out before they got money to buy more, and whether they could afford to eat balanced meals.
The FSA, which questioned 3,000 adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, found that while more than 80% of all households had never worried about food running out nor about being able to eat proper meals in the last 12 months, there were wide variations among income groups.
Of unemployed respondents 47% said they often or sometimes worried about their food supplies running out before they got more money, compared with 7% of respondents in the top quartile.
Overall, nearly three-quarters of respondents reported living in highly food secure households, meaning they had no anxiety about consistently accessing adequate food. About 13% were marginally food insecure, meaning they had occasional problems but did not reduce the quality or quantity of their food intake.
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