In my previous blog (‘Food Waste – Is it a Problem’?) I hinted on the contradiction between food waste and food poverty, where on one hand, a staggering amount of food gets wasted and, on another, millions of people are unable to feed themselves adequately. In the current blog, I discuss the issue of food poverty.

Food Poverty

Food poverty = obesity and hunger

Food poverty occurs when an “individual is faced with limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies). Food poverty arises largely from poor economic access to food. For an advanced country like the UK, it is expected that:

  • people have sufficient money to purchase the food they want to eat to meet social, health and nutritional requirements;
  • people can physically access or obtain diverse foods in a socially acceptable manner.

However, in the UK, a large number of households shows varying degrees of food poverty (Figure 1).


Fig 1: Stages of food insecurity

The Food Ethics Council estimates that over 4 million people in the UK are in food poverty. Even though it is not clear how this figure was obtained, it gives an idea about the prevalence of food poverty. The FAO estimated that approximately 8.4 million Brits struggle to get enough food to eat; 4.7 million of them were considered ‘severely food insecure’ in 2014. The Trussell Trust reported a steady rise in the number of people using food banks (Figure 2).


source: The Trussell Trust

Although the Trussell Trust data shows an increase in food bank use, this data underestimate the number of people actually facing food poverty in the UK. This is because (1) The Trussell Trust data does not include the numerous independent food banks and other groups providing food aid to people, (2) not all people in food poverty access food assistance (a study in Canada showed that the actual number of those in food poverty  was about 17 times the number of people who used food banks). Thus, food poverty in the UK could be higher than available data suggest, indicating a need for robust measurement and monitoring methodologies.

Causes of Food Poverty

Food poverty can be caused by rising food cost, high cost of living and low incomes. According to Defra,  the cost of food has gone up by 8% in real terms since the recession (Figure 3). A recent study (fig. 4a&b) by Cambridge university researchers indicated that the prices of healthy foods have gone up even higher in the last 10 years than unhealthy junk foods.


Figure 3: Rising trends of food prices since 1996 


Figure 4a. Mean price of foods by Eatwell food group, 2002–2012.


Figure 4b.Mean price of foods   by Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling score category,2002–201

The price of food is an important determinant of what people eat. Those on lower incomes tend to buy cheap processed food compared to those on average or high incomes. Although food prices have risen, income levels have stagnated or even declined in real terms. The Government’s data shows that disposable income for the poorest 20% of UK households has decreased consistently since 2004.  Low-income families spend about 16.4% of their income on food (rises to 40% with housing and fuel) compared to 11.1% by those in other income categories.   A rise in food prices exerts greater pressure on household budgets for those in low-income ( see figure 4 & 5)

share-spent-on-food-and-drinksFigure 4:Low income households spent over 16% of income on food and drinks compared to 11% by other households (Source: DEFRA 2015)


Figure 5: Food prices continued to rise since 2007

Other factors driving people into food poverty include unemployment, under-employment, poor health, and changes to the welfare and benefits systems. A recent report by Trussell Trust shows that almost half of those using its food banks did so due to either changes or delays in payments of social security (Figure 6). There is a real risk that the benefit cuts and the new Universal Credit (with monthly payments) will push more low-income


families into food poverty.

Furthermore, large superstores and out-of-town shopping developments have weakened local and independent retailers, leaving the poorest people in ‘food deserts’, without access to affordable, healthy food. Since 85% of households with weekly incomes under £150 do not have a car, they pay high transaction cost to access food in the superstores. Thus, the poorest people pay more for their food than their richer counterparts, a situation known as the Poverty Premium. Save the Children has estimated that it costs the average low-income household an extra £1,300 a year, as they pay more for food, fuel, finance and other goods and services.

Impact of food poverty

Poor households are not only grapple with putting food on the table in the short term, they suffer a double injustice of the long term effects of food poverty. Severe food poverty can significantly increase the risk of developing serious chronic health conditions (cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes). Those facing food poverty are also more likely to suffer from stress, ill health, poor educational attainment and shortened life expectancy. Food-poor children suffer from lower and poor nutritional intake, bad dietary patterns, and hunger. Emotionally, food-poor people have to live with stigmatization and low self-confidence and esteem.

The Way Forward

Food poverty is a looming crisis in the UK. Low incomes and high cost of living largely combine to drive food poverty in the UK. Therefore, addressing the structural inequalities in household income and access to healthy, affordable food can substantially lower food poverty. It is appropriate that the minimum wage and benefit levels are raised in line with inflation to a sufficient level to ensure that all households have a living income, not merely a survival income. Government must create the enabling environment and local authorities must work with food retailers to proactively ensure that the healthiest foods are affordable and accessible to all. Reducing food waste and re-distributing food surplus would help lower food poverty. Whilst the government Strategy for Zero Hunger in Britain is welcomed, more practical action is needed.