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Food insecurity data finally published

By Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network

Alongside Emma Lewell-Buck MP, Dr Rachel Loopstra, the Food Foundation, Church Action on Poverty, Sustain, the Trussell Trust and other members of the End Hunger UK coalition as well as Feeding Britain, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has long advocated for regular food insecurity measurement in the UK. However alarming, data on the use of food banks represents the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to food insecurity as only a fraction of people who need help seek out emergency food aid. At a stakeholder meeting held by the Office of National Statistics in February 2019, a plan was finally announced to ask food insecurity questions within the next Department of Work and Pensions' (DWP) large-scale Family Resources Survey (FRS) running from April 2019 to March 2020.

Last Thursday, the results of these hugely significant questions were published by the DWP. This was an analysis of food security amongst the UK population at a scale not ever produced before. [1] What’s more, the questions were based on the USDA Household Food Security Survey Module that measures food insecurity in terms of the affordability of food. The data makes grim reading - no less than 8% of the UK population reported low or very low food security in the year before the pandemic began.[2] If you add in marginal food security (or food insecurity depending on your point of view) that figure rises to 14% of the UK population or 9.3 million people.

And if you look beyond the data on the UK’s general population, the findings are starker and reveal that, even before the pandemic, 25% of people on any income-related benefit reported low or very low food security.[3] While no less than 43% of people on Universal Credit were classed as experiencing low or very low food security. 26% of households on Universal Credit reported very low food security in comparison with 4% of the general population. Looking at the data on household composition, 29% of single parent households were classed as food insecure as well as 19% of households with one or more disabled adults under state pension age.

However, it’s critical to note that the time frame used for these ground-breaking questions fell short and will have inevitably impacted on the accuracy of the household food insecurity levels being reported. As Dr Rachel Loopstra points out, “only measuring food insecurity over a 30-day window means the annual prevalence of how many people experience problems accessing food in the population will remain unknown."[4] Looking at USDA data from 2017, 11.8% of the population reported moderate or severe food insecurity at some point in the previous 12 months. However, when these same respondents were asked the food insecurity questions about the past 30 days, only 6.3% were classed as food insecure.[5]

While the infamous DWP literature review of research on the reasons behind food bank use remains elusive, the data revealed by the UK Government on Thursday shows that one of the key reasons people can’t afford to eat is because social security payments are inadequate. [6] DWP data has clearly demonstrated the link between food insecurity and benefit payment levels with or without the publication of the literature review.

Now is the time to act, in the full knowledge that food insecurity levels have worsened during the pandemic. Food and You Survey data, published a week before the DWP figures and using a 12-month time frame, found that 16% of respondents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reported low or very low food security again using the USDA module.[7] Representing the ‘tip of the iceberg’, independent food banks have reported an 110% rise in need for emergency food parcels from 2019 and 2020 over a comparable 9-month period.[8] The Trussell Trust food bank network saw a 47% increase in need comparing April to September 2019 to the same period in 2020.[9]

Making the £20 uplift to Universal Credit permanent is essential and it's imperative that this increase is extended to legacy benefits. But these changes alone will not suffice. They need to be added to a whole raft of systemic changes including removing the benefit cap, the waiting time for Universal Credit, the sanctions system, the 2-child limit and ensuring a Real Living Wage and living hours for all.

And a broader, long-term approach is essential. An approach that not only makes long-term economic sense, but also ensures a healthy living standard for all. The New Economics Foundation is calling for a living income. While the social security system is reformed, an emergency minimum income guarantee of £227 will allow everyone to be able to afford the basic essentials, preventing people from falling into or further into poverty. Ensuring a living income would be a critical first step towards Professor Marmot’s vision to build back fairer as well as towards the implementation of a Right to Food together with other social and economic rights. We need bold and decisive calls that will see our society turn a devastating food insecurity trend around and address its principle driver, escalating poverty, for good.

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