Higher rates of food poverty during Covid are likely to remain, new research shows

15 September 2021

New data from the University of Hertfordshire shows the extent to which food poverty increased during the pandemic, with the impact expected to last well beyond the removal of COVID-19 restrictions.

In a national survey, 37% of people revealed they experienced difficulties affording food during the pandemic, or knew someone who did – rising to 50% amongst BAME communities.

36% anticipate the pandemic will have a significant negative impact on their household finances in the longer term – a figure that rises to 50% in the over 45s age group. With the Universal Credit increase of £20 a week set to be revoked in October, experts fear the problem could worsen.

60% of people said they became more aware of food poverty during the pandemic. Yet experts say the problem is not a new one and will not be easily redressed as Covid restrictions are eased.

For those already just managing, with irregular or unstable income, the pandemic exacerbated the challenges of accessing food. 35% of survey respondents said they or the people they know were already finding it hard to manage pre-COVID, but the pandemic has made it worse. With the UK falling behind on its child malnutrition targets1, urgent action is recommended to support those who are at risk of falling further into poverty.

The data supports the research conducted by Wendy Wills, Professor of Food and Public Health at the University of Hertfordshire: “The survey results are concerning but, sadly, not surprising. The research we conducted during the pandemic revealed that the current support system is inadequate for people who are struggling to access food. Many families we spoke to were in need of benefits for the first time, and found it difficult to navigate the system to get the help they required.

“The media attention on free school meals certainly shed a light on existing inequalities, but it’s important this doesn’t fade from people’s minds as the news agenda moves on. Food poverty is, put simply, poverty. It’s part of a wider issue that requires urgent attention.

“Universal Credit is vital to this conversation. The withdrawal of the additional £20 a week, which was brought in to offer support during the pandemic, will make a huge difference to a family who are struggling to afford enough food”.

The survey data also suggests that there is public support for further action on food inequality. 40% believe that food inequality will worsen as we emerge from the pandemic, and over 50% believe there should be greater government focus on tackling poverty.

The Food Foundation, who are campaigning to end child food poverty, today commented on the new findings. Isabel Hughes, Policy Engagement Manager, said: “These findings from the University of Hertfordshire validate what we have been hearing in the regular surveys that we have been conducting since the start of the pandemic - rates of food insecurity remain extremely high, far exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Households with children are particularly at risk.

“We need to see much more ambitious action from the government to support everyone that is struggling, and particularly children and families. The planned £20 cut to Universal Credit and the upcoming end of the furlough scheme will only make the situation worse.  Essential nutritional safety nets for children, including Free School Meals, the Healthy Start scheme and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme, should be strengthened as a matter of urgency to protect children from the worst impacts.”

1 ‘Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow up: Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK’, January 2019

The national survey was conducted in July 2021, with a sample size of 2000 respondents. Data has been weighted to ensure it is nationally representative by gender and region.

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