What can the Third Sector Tell us about Food Insecurity in the UK?

The Food Foundation was recently approached by Neighbourly – a social media platform which connects community groups with businesses in their area – about their back-of-store food redistribution project.

Neighbourly wanted to explore how their network of community groups best feed into the unfolding conversation about food insecurity in the UK.

Food insecurity can be defined as ‘limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways’. 

The Food Foundation agreed to feed into the design a survey, which Neighbourly disseminated to the 800+ community groups and individuals within their network.  While the groups which utilise Neighbourly’s platform are not statistically representative of all community groups engaged in food-related activities in the UK, the 212 responses[1] provide a snapshot of the work of third sector organisations operating on the sharp end of food insecurity in the UK.

Figure 1: Geographic spread of responding organisations

What can the voluntary sector tell us about food insecuirty

As detailed in Figure 2, respondents use redistributed food in different ways, including:  food banks providing emergency food aid; housing associations running cooki

ng and budgeting groups with tenants; charities running pay-as-you-feel cafes; and faith groups hosting neighbourhood events.

For the remainder of this article, we focus on the 176 respondents who run scheme(s) providing free and/or subsidised meals to vulnerable groups who might not otherwise be able to afford it: i.e. ‘Emergency food provision’ and/or ‘hot meal provision’ and/or ‘community cafes’ (aggregated as ‘meal provision’).[2]

Figure 2: Organisation’s primary uses of redistributed food

Neighbourly asked meal providers whether they could identify key factors which caused a spike in demand for their services.  70% noted benefit delays as being a key causal factor, while 69% cited unexpected short term financial crises.  This supports the observations of others, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has noted the impact of social welfare reform on hunger rates in the UK.   49% of respondents likewise observe that cold weather events – during which gas and electricity costs (both inelastic aspects of household expenditure) rise – generate a greater demand for food provision.

Holidays likewise place additional strains on household food budgets: both directly (e.g. within household where children receive free school meals during term times); and indirectly (e.g. through increased childcare costs). 52% of those groups involved in meal provision reported an increase in demand over these periods, as detailed in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Key factors that result in an increase in demand

These new data support the findings of others regarding ‘holiday hunger’ in the UK: qualitative and quantitative studies have identified holiday periods as putting additional stress on low income households.  Children living in these circumstances not only suffer nutritionally:  social isolation, learning loss and family tension are also potential outcomes, limiting the life chances of society’s most vulnerable.  It is hardly surprising then that increased numbers turn to the third sector during these periods.

However Neighbourly’s survey demonstrates that many third sector organisations are required to scale back their operations during those period of the year where there is greatest demand: likely due to limits in human and financial resources.  24% of respondents states that they routinely scale back provision during at least one regular school holiday.  When asked directly whether there were periods of the year where demand for their organisation’s activities/services regularly exceeded their capacity to deliver, 42% cited one or more school holiday periods as a problematic period, indicating that even organisation that meet or exceed their average activities during holiday periods struggle outside of term time.

Figure 4: Periods in the year where organisations regularly scale back redistribution work

This underlines that the fact that, while the third sector is currently playing a crucial role in alleviating food insecurity, a reliance on the third sector – whether supported by corporate food distribution or not – cannot be normalised and incorporated into our societal safety net:  government leadership is needed, with well-resourced statutory duty bearers working with community partners to develop, test and monitor the effectiveness of new approaches to holiday food provision.  We have previously described the need for an action research project focussed initially on the country’s 20 most deprived local authorities, with the project scaling up annually to protect all in need within 10 years.

Here lies a crucial issue.  Many who are food insecure make use of food banks and other forms of food redistribution.  However, many more do not. The latest data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) suggests an estimated 8.4 million people, the equivalent of entire population of London, reported having insufficient food in the UK in 2014.  This is 17 times the number using Trussell Trust food banks (the largest network of food aid providers in the country).  If the third sector cannot meet current demand for food redistribution, it certainly cannot be expected to take a lead in supporting all food insecure households, including those that have not elected to incorporate food redistribution into their repertoire of survival strategies.

Instead, a cross-departmental strategy from government is required.  Firstly, the implementation of nutrition-focussed policies – such as the Healthy Start programme which supports young and low-income pregnant women and young families with food vouchers – should be reviewed to increase uptake: currently, only 75% of eligible individual benefit from this scheme, limiting its effectiveness.  More holistically, government needs to ensure its whole legislative programme is nutrition-sensitive: that is to say, the impact of all policies on nutritional outcomes should be considered.

The United Nations agrees with this point, observing in June 2016 a “lack of adequate measures adopted by the State… to address the increasing levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, including obesity, and the lack of adequate measures to reduce the reliance on food banks”.  The UN makes clear that the state is failing to adequately address the structural determinates of hunger: noting, for example, the negative impact of social welfare reform and recommending “that all social benefits [should] provide a level of benefits sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living, including access to health care, adequate housing and food”.

To build this nutrition sensitivity into all policies, routinely collected data on the scale and nature of food insecurity is needed:  government does not currently measure food insecurity in the UK, and is therefore unable to assess the impact of its policies and interventions.  While the FAO’s recently compiled data is robust, its small sample size does not allow policy makers to hone in on the experiences of distinct groups, in order to allow for more effective planning and an evidence-based approach to resource allocation.

Of course government cannot eliminate hunger in the UK alone.  By engaging with Neighbourly and similar organisations to redistribute food that would otherwise go to waste, retailers in the business sector have shown a strong willingness to alleviate food insecurity in the UK.  With data from Canada showing that the majority of food insecure individuals live within working households, an additional role for businesses can be identified: the provision of secure and adequately paid labour. This is a particularly pressing issue in retail and other sectors where low wages and insecure contracts are disproportionately concentrated.

Again, routinely collected data on the scale of food insecurity could provide evidence of the impact of such changes in business practices.  The scale of food insecurity in the UK could be measured nationwide by an internationally-validated survey tool for as little as £50,000/year.  However, in addition to this quantitative data the qualitative experiences of those affected by food insecurity must also be drawn into policy discussions: in order to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are considered in the design of public policy.  The Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty and Feeding Britain parliamentary inquiry have done this with great success in recent years.  By working with charities in their network to give a platform to the ‘end point users’ of redistributed food, Neighbourly and other similar organisations can make sure that those surviving food insecurity are listened to in the years ahead.

The Food Foundation is financially and editorially independent of Neighbourly.

[1] Once duplicate responses were removed

[2] Few respondents use the food they received for only one purpose.