THE PROPORTION of UK adults on low incomes who face hunger has almost doubled since 2004, with the unemployed and disabled particularly vulnerable, says the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Survey data published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health shows that those who are unemployed or disabled are the most vulnerable to the worst aspects of food insecurity, which includes going whole days without eating.
The steep rise in UK food bank use in recent years has pushed household food insecurity back onto the public health agenda, say the researchers.
They compared data from the 2016 Food & You (F&Y) Survey with data from the 2004 Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey (LIDNS).’
The F&Y Survey included 3,118 adults aged 16+ living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while the LIDNS targeted the 15 per cent most deprived households in the UK.
Analysis of the F&Y data showed that around one in five adults (21%; 10.2 million people) in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland experienced some level of food insecurity in 2016.
For nearly three per cent, this was severe, meaning that they likely went without food.
Several groups were at heightened risk of food insecurity. These included adults up to their mid 40s, those with children, those who didn’t identify as white, and adults with low educational attainment.
Nearly one in three adults with children under the age of 16 was food insecure.
The risk was greatest among the unemployed, those with long term conditions or disabilities, and those on the lowest household income.
To explore trends over time, the researchers compared 335 respondents in the lowest income bracket from the F&Y survey with respondents in the LIDNS, a process which matched people with similar socioeconomic and demographic features in both surveys.
Their calculations showed that between 2004 and 2016, food insecurity among the least well off almost doubled, rising from just under 28 per cent to nearly 46 per cent, after taking account of potentially influential factors.
The rise was even steeper among those living with a longstanding illness or disability – just over 53.5% of whom experienced food insecurity in 2016.
The BMJ says cautiously: ‘This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause, added to which the people in each dataset were not the same in both time periods and “low income” was defined differently in both surveys.
‘But if anything, the observed increase in food insecurity among those on low incomes is likely to be an underestimate, because people in the 2004 sample faced a greater degree of material deprivation than those in the 2016 sample’, the researchers point out.
The scale of food insecurity in the UK is larger than recent food bank data suggest, and affects those who are already at risk of poor health, and they highlight that ‘welfare system changes may help to explain the figures’.
The BMJ goes on: ‘While the Great Recession also occurred between 2004 and 2016 and may have contributed to a rise in food insecurity at that time, by 2016 the UK was no longer (officially) in recession.
‘But welfare reform continued, the effects of which were keenly felt by those with longstanding illnesses.
‘The rising vulnerability to food insecurity observed between the 2004 LIDNS and F&Y survey suggests that the poorest in the UK are worse off today.’
And they conclude: ‘Food insecurity has certainly always existed in the UK, but in light of the welfare changes that occurred over this period, it is possible the current social security system is providing increasingly inadequate protection from food insecurity for more and more people.’
In contrast to the BMJ’s measured report on food poverty, the Trussell Trust charity unequivocally lays the blame at the Tory government’s door.
A record number of emergency food parcels were given out by the Trussell Trust food bank network last year, as benefit cuts, Universal Credit (UC) delays, and rising poverty fuelled the busiest year in the charity’s history.
It said last Thursday that its network of food banks across the UK had handed out a record number of 1.6 million emergency food parcels in 2018.
And of nearly a third of those who received the food, more than 500,000 were children, confirming reports that more minors across Britain are in urgent need of food amid cuts to benefits or delays in the implementation of the Tories’ ‘programme of providing social care’ i.e. UC.
The charity said the overall number of food bags given out to the poor across the UK last year showed a year-on-year 19 per cent increase, the biggest surge in five years.
It also warns supplies are not sufficient to cope with the increasing number of people demanding emergency food.
Its food banks have expanded their inventory by 73 per cent in the last five years.
‘We do not want to be a part of the welfare state, we can’t be a part of the system,’ said Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive, while criticising the government for its lack of action on increased poverty in the UK.
Condemning Universal Credit, Revie continued: ‘People are telling us they needed to use a food bank because they simply didn’t have enough money to last until their first payment came through.
‘We know almost half of the referrals made to food banks due to a delay in benefits payments were linked to Universal Credit.
‘Our data is clear – the wait is #5WeeksTooLong.
‘That’s why we’re urging the government to change this situation now.
‘But we can’t do this alone. We need everyone to get behind our campaign so that as a nation we stand together in solidarity to help put an end to this injustice and build a future where no one in the UK ever goes hungry.
‘Do we really want food banks to become the norm in our country? We don’t think so. We’re a country that prides itself on making sure proper support is in place for each of us whenever help is needed, whether that’s through our health service or benefits system.
‘Illness, disability or the loss of a job could happen at any time, and we owe it to each other to make sure sufficient support is in place at times when it’s unavoidably needed.
‘Enough is enough. Our food bank volunteers are working tirelessly day-in and day-out.
‘But we were never meant to be such a large operation, supporting so many people where the government has failed to do so.
‘In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is no excuse for this to carry on. That’s why we’ll continue to campaign and urge the government to do all it takes to end hunger in the UK once and for all. We know it can be done.’