Food insecurity: too much to stomach

The price of food is up by 16.4% from last year – the largest uplift since the 1980s. Two in five (39%) are now worried about affording food next month. Shoppers are being savvier by switching supermarkets and buying essential ranges, but these are temporary fixes and unlikely to help everyone. The poorest households and those with children are being hit the hardest, as they are more likely to be skipping meals and suffering the health consequences. The government has already published the Food Strategy White Paper, but while policy proposals have been forward looking, is enough being done now?

an illustration of a plate with a single small fried egg on it on top of bills
Cameron Garrett Vicky Mullis Charlotte Albiston
Cameron Garrett
Research Manager
Vicky Mullis
Research Manager, Public Affairs
Charlotte Albiston
Research Executive, Public Affairs

email icon twitter linkedin

email icon linkedin

email icon

Where is the biggest upward contribution to the UK’s record-breaking inflation figures coming from? The price of food and non-alcoholic beverages has risen consecutively for the past fifteen months, and as of October 2022 had shot up by 16.4% since the previous year – the largest uplift since the early 1980s25.

While the government has already set out its plan for action in its Food Strategy White Paper, after commissioning the independent Dimbleby National Food Strategy review, the cost of living crisis is focusing even more attention on how we produce and pay for healthy food and drink.

Britons have certainly noticed the added expense to their shopping trolleys with seven in ten telling us their typical grocery shop is costing more than a year ago26. Along with industry experts, such as the Food and Drink Federation who predict inflation to “accelerate in coming months and remain high”27, the public also expect things to get worse.

One in four (26%) already report they have been using their credit card to buy essentials.

When asked this summer to predict their household expenditure over the next six months, consumers were near unanimous (82%) in expecting the cost of their food shopping to rise further28. And this is as one in four (26%) already report they have been using their credit card to buy essentials29. The impact of this – and the extent to which food insecurity is spread across Britain – is revealed in the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Consumer Insight Tracker which shows two in five (39%) are now worried about being able to afford food in the next month30.

Shoppers are trying to be savvier

Shoppers are already trying to be savvier in the grocery aisles to save money. By this summer, one in three had stopped buying non-essential items,  with a similar number opting for discounted goods approaching their use-by date, while one in five said they had swapped supermarkets to a cheaper alternative31.

These are neither long term solutions nor likely to help everyone. For one, it is the essential items which have seen the biggest price hikes. Experiencing around a thirty per cent price increase on last year are shopping basket staples such as milk, cheese and eggs32.

That said, in conjunction with the government’s “Help for Households” campaign, most supermarkets have extended their value ranges to incorporate more products, and some have put a price lock on essential goods to try to combat the effects of inflation – but most only last until the end of the year33.

Increased demand for these ranges, as well as supply issues, also means they are consistently selling out34, with some supermarkets even having to limit sales35. As the writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe argues, when the cheapest products are not available, there is often a significant price disparity between them and the next cheapest brand36. Tracking data from the Office for National Statistics found this difference can be up to twenty percent37.

Nearly one in ten of the country’s most economically deprived areas are so-called “food deserts” where poor public transport and a lack of big supermarkets limit the options available to consumers.

Likewise, it’s not easy for everyone to simply swap to cheaper supermarkets. A study led by the Social Market Foundation estimates that nearly one in ten of the country’s most economically deprived areas are so-called “food deserts” where poor public transport and a lack of big supermarkets limit the options available to consumers– something also highlighted by Erin Simpson in her article in this issue of Understanding Society about challenges experienced by people living in remote areas of Scotland.

While discounted items may help budgets, consumers also need to keep safe. The FSA found one in three (32%) admit to eating food past its use-by-date because they couldn’t afford to buy any more, which can increase the risk of becoming ill with food poisoning38. In fact, consumers are engaging in a range of behaviours that pose a risk to their health such as turning off a fridge/freezer (18%), changing settings to keep food at a higher temperature (26%), cooking food at a lower temperature (29%) or for shorter periods of time (30%)39.

Who is being hit the hardest?

It is the poorest households which are suffering the most. Looking at households earning less than £20,000 a year, half (51%) say they are concerned about being able to afford food next month and over two in five (42%) are either skipping or reducing their meals. Additionally, households with children are similarly impacted, with almost half being concerned about being able to afford food (48%) and two in five (40%) skipping or reducing meals40.

Highly processed foods, which are high in salt, sugar and fats, are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods.

In his “National Food Strategy”, published in July 2021, the restaurateur and government advisor, Henry Dimbleby, outlines how obesity and dietary-related ill health are more pronounced in the most deprived groups. Highly processed foods, which are high in salt, sugar and fats, are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods41. This has led to a situation where the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that compared to children from the most affluent households, those from the least well-off consume 29% less fruit and vegetables, 75% less oily fish and 17% less fibre per day42.

Dimbleby advocates for a sugar and salt tax being introduced on processed foods and for restaurants, which would make unhealthy options less a default for those cutting costs. But of course, this poses the risk of making food simply more expensive for those struggling. However, he contends that revenue raised could go back into extending the Healthy Start Scheme, which provides coupons for parents in need to buy milk, fruit, and vegetables, and setting up a “Community Eatwell” programme to allow GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables, and the provision of cooking lessons at a community level.

This is just one more example of how deprivation links to health, and the implications for the NHS and the economy, as we discuss in more detail this Understanding Society's article Poverty, poor health, and the NHS: Stopping the spiral.

Ensuring families can afford to eat demands swift action

Discussion around food insecurity cannot solely focus on long-term health determinants, as people are struggling to stock their fridges and put food on their tables today. This is laid bare by the public’s increasing reliance on food banks and charities. The Trussell Trust distributed 1.3 million food parcels between April and September 2022, which was an increase of a more than a third for the same period the year before43. Almost half a million of these food parcels went to children.

The Food Strategy White Paper, released in July 2022, outlines how the government wants to “spark a school food revolution”. However, campaigners, led by the Food Foundation, want more immediate action, and have advocated for free school meals being offered to all households receiving Universal Credit which could help feed 800,000 children in England currently living in poverty44.

Dimbley’s review also called for the Holiday and Food (HAF) programme, which provides funding to local authorities to support disadvantaged children outside of term time, to be extended to all children receiving free school meals. Meanwhile supermarkets have taken the initiative, as many have expanded their “kids eat free” policies, to offer additional top-ups to Healthy Start Scheme coupons and are running educational promotions on how to feed families on a budget45.

The White Paper laudably commits to delivering safe, healthy, affordable food regardless of where people live or how much they earn. To achieve this, the Government rightly set out how they will need considered intervention for long-term education and encouragement towards healthier eating. However, ensuring families can afford to eat now also requires swift action to offer certainty to the most vulnerable in society. Otherwise, for these families, the coming months could leave more than a bitter taste in the mouth, with potentially serious longer-term implications.

Some other articles you might like...

An illustration of people struggling to get ion the housing ladder as prices are too high

an illustration of the countries health on a downward spiral

An illustration of the high cost of the living in rural living

Harsh home truths Poverty, poor health, and the NHS: Stopping the spiral Paying a price for rural living

More insights about Public Sector