Social Justice

Food poverty in the UK: The causes, figures and solutions

The UK’s rate of food poverty is among the worst in Europe. As the pandemic makes it harder for people to afford to eat, we explain what you need to know about the country’s growing hunger crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has pushed many families into hardship and exposed the severity of the UK’s food poverty problem.

The country’s reliance onfood banks soared during the pandemic, sparking concerns that millions will be forced to go hungry for years to come. 

This is what you need to know about Brits’ struggle to eat.

What is food poverty?

People living in food poverty either don’t have enough money to buy sufficient nutritious food, struggle to get it because it is not easily accessible in their community, or both. 

It can be a long-term issue in someone’s life or can affect someone for a shorter period of time because of a sudden change in their personal circumstances. 


Food insecurity leaves many people reliant on emergency parcels from food banks and means that for many children, theirfree school meal could be the only guaranteed hot food they eat in a day. It pushes families into crisis during the school holidays because they cannot afford to pay for the food their children would have received during term time.

That can also mean parents eat less or skip meals entirely to make sure there is enough for their children to eat. Some people find they can only afford unhealthy food lacking nutrition, widening health inequalities between wealthy and disadvantaged people in the UK. ALords’ report published in 2020 said that low-income families were left with “little or no choice” about diet, forced to eat unhealthy food or simply go without. Others don’t live in a home with facilities for cooking or storing meals. 

The UK also has a problem with so-called “food deserts”, defined as an area populated by 5-15,000 people who have access to two or fewer big supermarkets. Many of these areas are dotted with smaller convenience stores – which are demonstrably more expensive and less likely to stock fresh, healthy supplies – and force people who can’t afford private transport to go without the healthy food they need.

How many people are in food poverty in the UK?

The UK’s food poverty rate isamong the highest in Europe. Despite being thesixth richest country in the world, millions are struggling to access the food they need.

Nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February 2021, according to a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

Progress had been made in the effort to end hunger during the pandemic, the MPs said, but who warned gains made could be lost as the country emerges from lockdown without determined government action.

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.

“During the COVID crisis, different government departments pulled together to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society were fed,” said Neil Parish, committee chair and Conservative MP. “This should set a precedent.”

Other UK food poverty estimates go even higher. Charity Sustain UK said 8.4 million people in the UK are living in food poverty, with BAME, disabled and older people worst affected. 

The number of families struggling to afford food is likely higher than food bank figures would suggest, as some people reportthe stigma and shame around poverty being enough to stop them seeking help to eat. 

What causes food poverty?

Most people who fall into food poverty struggle because their income is too low or unreliable. This can be caused by low wages, a patchy social security system and benefit sanctions, which make it difficult to cover rent, fuel and food costs.

It can also be a result of living costs which are rising much faster than average pay does, which is why the Living Wage Foundation encourages employers to voluntarily commit to paying the Real Living Wage – calculated according to the real cost of living.

In-work poverty is on the rise and one of the main drivers behind food poverty. Around72 per cent of children in families struggling to afford food have at least one parent who works, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

Mounting debt can trap people in poverty and force them to rely on food banks, while disabilities and mental health problems make it harder for people to afford the food they need.

Why is food poverty increasing in the UK?

The UK’s reliance on food banks has beenrising consistently year on year for nearly a decade. But the number of people in need of emergency food parcels hit new heights last year after the Covid-19 crisis caused thousands to lose their jobs or see their incomes cut significantly. 

Nearly two million people turned to food banks in 2020, double the 913,000 receiving emergency food in March 2013.

There were more than 1,300 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK in February 2021 as well as over 900 independent food banks.

Families with children are being hit hardest, according to research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed, with a 95 per cent increase in parcels given to households with kids during the pandemic. Nearly 15 per cent of families with children have struggled to afford food since March last year,the Food Foundation said

More than 300,000 children registered for free school meals after the UK locked down on March 23 last year.  Nearly 20 per cent of England’s state school pupils now receive free school meals, a total 1.63 million out of 8.2 million.Experts also point to local authority budget cuts and a failing welfare safety net as a major driver of food bank use, with the five-week wait for Universal Credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap among some of the policies trapping people in poverty. 

Stop Mass Homelessness

Help us stop mass homelessness

Unless we act, the UK is facing a homelessness crisis 
this autumn.

The number of households with incomes limited by the benefit cap soared by more than 137 per cent during the pandemic, according toGovernment figures.

Up to 76,000 households were affected by the benefit cap in February 2020, before Covid-19 hit the UK. By November 2020, the number impacted had soared to 180,000. 

And the no recourse to public funds policy, which stops people accessing benefits or any help from the state depending on their immigration status, is also at the root of crisis for many people in the UK.

Where is food poverty worst?

A study produced byKellogg’s and thinktank Social Market Foundation found that the UK’s most severe “food deserts” were in Hattersley in Greater Manchester, Rumney in Cardiff, Everton in Liverpool and Dalmarnock in Glasgow. 

People in London areas including Croydon and Southwark as well as cities in the north of England like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle have high rates of food poverty.

Around 26 per cent – more than 103,000 – of children in England’s North East qualified for free school meals in 2020, compared to just 15 per cent in the South East.

How can we end food poverty?

Anti-poverty campaigners, trade unions and opposition politicians alike have united in calling for the temporary £20 Universal Credit uplift, brought in as an emergency measure at the start of lockdown, to be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an extension to the increase – which was set to be scrapped in April – until September, but campaigners have warned cutting the benefit then will still leave families facing a financial cliff-edge as the UK recovers from the pandemic.

The five-week wait to receive a first Universal Credit payment also leaves people without any money to afford food, which is why charities want the Government to make the advanced loan given to cover this period a non-repayable grant.

MPs called on the Government to install a food security minister to ensure progress is not lost in the fight to end food poverty, as well as making sure all families whose children are eligible for free school meals are getting help to keep their kids fed.

They also demanded ministers learned from the “unacceptable” food parcels given to some pupils learning from home during lockdown, and said retailers should help vulnerable people access food by removing delivery charges and minimum online spends.

Councils and welfare experts have also made repeated calls for theno recourse to public funds policy to be suspended at least for the duration of the pandemic to reduce the number of migrants pushed into poverty.


Support The Big Issue Winter Appeal

Big Issue vendors can’t work from home and with severe weather warnings on the cards, they face a very tough and uncertain Winter period ahead.

Recommended for you

Read All
Undocumented migrants must be included in Covid inquiry, says charity

Undocumented migrants must be included in Covid inquiry, says charity

'Migrants are not enemy combatants': Plans to bring in navy to stop Channel crossings spark anger
asylum system

'Migrants are not enemy combatants': Plans to bring in navy to stop Channel crossings spark anger

Changemakers 2022: Anti-poverty
Changemakers 2022

Changemakers 2022: Anti-poverty

Changemakers 2022: Social Justice
Changemakers 2022

Changemakers 2022: Social Justice

Most Popular

Read All
Government branded 'disgrace' after bid to strengthen Sarah Everard inquiry voted down at 12.30am

Government branded 'disgrace' after bid to strengthen Sarah Everard inquiry voted down at 12.30am

What are the Kill the Bill protests?

What are the Kill the Bill protests?

Rose Ayling-Ellis: 'Suddenly it became quite cool to be deaf'

Rose Ayling-Ellis: 'Suddenly it became quite cool to be deaf'

The Met Police is being sued for not investigating a Downing Street Christmas party

The Met Police is being sued for not investigating a Downing Street Christmas party