Food Poverty and Inequality

The COVID-19 pandemic is a national health crisis, but the wider health impact must not be underestimated – it has intensified problems with food inequality and malnutrition throughout the world.

We know that low income families have struggled with the benefit system and making healthy choices if they’re forced to accept food parcels. We know that the loneliness and isolation faced by millions of older people means they have lost confidence in cooking, shopping for food and that many eat less because they don’t want to eat alone.

For a first world country, it is considered surprising that food poverty even exists in the UK. But our researchers know that it’s a prevailing problem, and one which has been intensified over the last 18 months.

Our research in this area brings together a team with expertise spanning nursing, primary care, epidemiology, social work, mental health and nutrition. This means we understand the complexities of the relationship between food, health, and wellbeing for families, older people, those with health conditions, and the impact of a crisis like COVID-19 on the most vulnerable members of our society.  We are committed to providing actionable insights for health services to make positive changes to the way we care for and support people, and to working with partners with a joint ambition to drive positive change.

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New research into supporting families eligible for free school meals in the East of England during the pandemic

New research into supporting families eligible for free school meals in the East of England during the pandemic

A study in the East of England has found that many families with school-aged children reported difficulties in accessing food during the pandemic.

New research into supporting families eligible for free school meals in the East of England during the pandemic

A study of households, community volunteers and local authority and health and care professionals involved in the provision of food in the East of England has found that many families with school-aged children reported difficulties in accessing food during the pandemic.

With schools now about to close for the summer holidays, some families who are eligible for free school meals during term time may experience difficulties in providing nutritious meals for their children over the next few weeks as the financial effects of the pandemic continue to affect some people’s livelihoods.

The research conducted by the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) East of England, spoke with study participants between May 2020 and March 2021 to look at how people were managing with access to food and how they were being supported locally as the pandemic evolved.

The study found more support is needed to help families who are eligible for free school meals to navigate the benefits system, especially for those new to the benefits system or recently unemployed. The number of children eligible for free school meals has grown significantly over the past 12 months, from 1.44 million children in January 2020 to 1.74 million children in January 2021*.

Professor Wendy Wills, Director of the Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care at the University of Hertfordshire, commented: “The extension of the government’s school holiday activities and food programme across the country is a welcome scheme of support for families who might be struggling to meet food costs this summer. Children will be provided with meals and activities during the summer break.

“From speaking with parents across the East of England, we found the previous school holiday voucher scheme restricted food choices and had been difficult for many families to access, as they couldn’t be used online in a time when families were trying to restrict visits to the shops. Our research found families would benefit from a cash top-up to their Child Benefit or Universal Credit payments as a more flexible way of buying food and making the best choices for their individual needs, if access to free school meals becomes an issue again in the future.”

“It’s short sighted of the government to plan to cut the £20 uplift to Universal Credit that has been paid to the lowest waged during the pandemic, when employment is still so uncertain for many people. We know that low waged workers are those who struggle to feed their families so this removal of the uplift will directly impact on the food available for children.”

The University of Hertfordshire team has provided policy briefings to local authorities to help inform support for families and communities over the coming months and into the future.

Stevenage Cllr Rob Broom, added: "We are delighted to continue our work with colleagues at NIHR and the University of Hertfordshire on the development of research findings into actionable projects and interventions with our Healthy Stevenage Partners.  We believe this research and policy recommendation will help us to further support partners to deliver services our communities need backed by credible evidence which will further help us to shape our new Healthy Stevenage Strategy going forward”.

Food inequalities in focus for the future

Food inequalities in focus for the future

Professor Wendy Wills, shares her insights about how the UK can tackle food inequalities and reduce food insecurity as the nation recovers from the impact of the pandemic.

Food inequalities in focus for the future

Find out more about our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care

Urgent action needed to prevent malnutrition

Urgent action needed to prevent malnutrition

Professor Wendy Wills, led the publication of an open letter, calling for urgent action to prevent malnutrition amongst older people.

Urgent action needed to prevent malnutrition

Professor Wendy Wills, director of our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care, led the publication of an open letter to Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in June 2020 calling for urgent action to prevent malnutrition amongst older people. The letter was co-signed by over 100 academics, representatives of NHS trusts and Malnutritional Awareness and Prevention Network partners. Professor Wills also wrote to Jo Churchill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, in January 2021 calling for more action and support for older people at risk of malnutrition.

Food poverty and inequalities in the UK exposed by the pandemic

Food poverty and inequalities in the UK exposed by the pandemic

How Herts researchers are tackling food insecurity and providing insights and advice for policymakers.

Food poverty and inequalities in the UK exposed by the pandemic

Images of inadequate free school lunch parcels, empty supermarket shelves and snaking queues for food banks often dominated the UK news headlines during the national lockdowns. The pandemic shone a light on the vast food inequalities experienced in the UK and it didn’t make for comfortable reading. While some people were able to take advantage of more time spent at home to source locally produced, healthy groceries, many families on lower incomes found themselves reliant on food banks, the benefits system and reduced choice. A large number of older people, many already at risk of malnutrition and living with existing health conditions, were left isolated and unable to do their weekly food shop safely.

But once the headlines stop and the news cycle moves on, these issues don’t disappear. At the University of Hertfordshire, we’re engaged in ongoing work with professionals involved in food provision across local authorities, health and care services and the voluntary sector to ensure everyone involved in the provision of food and public health is aware of the food security issues faced by vulnerable communities.

We conducted a study with residents, community stakeholders and professionals involved in food provision across the East of England between May 2020 and January 2021 to discover how the pandemic was directly affecting people’s access to food and their eating habits, particularly among vulnerable groups in society.

From our findings on behalf of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration East of England, we have provided guidance and recommendations for policymakers to improve food security for vulnerable communities over the coming months.

Our researchers in the Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care continue to focus on understanding food inequalities in the UK to provide insights and recommendations that will help policymakers and front-line services work towards ensuring vulnerable groups of people are always able to access nutritious food.

Find out more about our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care.

Key facts: food poverty and inequality

Key facts: food poverty and inequality

A look at food inequality across the UK today.

Key facts: food poverty and inequality

Real stories: people who suffered food insecurity during the pandemic

Real stories: people who suffered food insecurity during the pandemic

Real stories from people who suffered food insecurity during the pandemic.

Real stories: people who suffered food insecurity during the pandemic

Lucy, a mother of three children and full-time carer for her 10-year-old daughter

Her husband was self-isolating due to ill health and she found feeding her family difficult on their low income. Although two of Lucy’s children are eligible for free school meals and they receive supermarket vouchers in lieu of meals at school, she is unable to use these vouchers online. She has also found it difficult to buy enough food due to an increase in food prices and food shortages. Consequently, she relies on community support from a local charity and a summer ‘brunch club’ to feed her family.

Joyce, 87, has mobility issues and lives alone on a second floor flat

Joyce has relied on ‘Meal on Wheels’ deliveries and a local charity to deliver her food shopping as she could no longer shop due to her shielding during the pandemic. Consequently, she has lost weight and has been feeling very low in mood as she is unable to socialise with her friends or visit the local supermarket café; she has sought help from a counselling service.

Amber, on maternity leave with her six month old baby

Amber has been unable to get her baby weighed and has found it difficult to get nappies and formula milk during lockdown. She describes feeling ‘robbed’ and worries about her child’s development. She has also said that learning to breastfeed has been stressful, painful and ‘overwhelming’ and she would benefit from more support.

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How can we tackle unequal access to food and improve health in our community?

How can we tackle unequal access to food and improve health in our community?

A new animated film from researchers at Herts and NIHR ARC East of England illustrates recent research findings and shares ideas to prevent poor health.

How can we tackle unequal access to food and improve health in our community?

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted unequal access to nutritious and affordable food in the East of England. We need to tackle this and improve support for families on a low income and those worst affected by the pandemic.

A new animated film from researchers at Herts and NIHR ARC East of England illustrates recent research findings and shares ideas to prevent poor health with community engagement and co-produced approaches.

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