One in four children have faced some form of food deprivation in the six months following lockdown, research by the Social Market Foundation has found.
Three million children in total have been affected by food deprivation in those six months and 14% of children – 1.7 million across the country - were classified as facing very low food security, the study by the thinktank found.
“Very low food security is more common and rose significantly for children with parents working in hospitality and leisure, retail and construction – all sectors badly hit by economic shutdowns,” said the report. “Of the children entering very low food security in 2020, 61% had parents whose wages had fallen (compared to 25% for those that did not enter very low food security), 44% had parents whose working hours had been cut and 24% had parents that lost a job.”
While social and political concerns over child poverty and hunger in the UK long predate the Coronavirus pandemic, recent public interventions from footballer Marcus Rashford and other prominent campaigners have thrust the question of food insecurity to the top of the government’s agenda.
The economic shutdowns of recent months, disproportionately hitting lower income households, have created fears that COVID-19 has made – and will continue to make – an already challenging situation considerably worse. In November 2020, the Legatum Institute estimated that 690,000 people – including 120,000 children – have entered poverty because of the Coronavirus crisis.
The figures outlined in the report indicate that a large minority of children in the UK have experienced significant hardship over recent months and the scale of the problem is greater than many might previously have imagined.
The research found that 16% of parents said that their children made do with smaller portions, had to skip meals or went a day without eating between March and September.
Reported usage of food banks rose from 8% before the pandemic to 11% since but reported take-up of free school meals went down slightly from 22% to 20%. In fact, just 30% of children receiving free school meals are classified as very low food security, suggesting that the measure is effective at reducing hunger.
However, 60% of children classified as very low food security in the survey do not report receiving free school meals, indicating possible issues with take-up and targeting. Younger parents were more likely to report very low food security, with just under a quarter of those aged under 35 doing so.
The report states that food insecurity was high before the crisis and has been worsened by COVID-19, and the economic outlook remains difficult. For a response proportionate to the scale of the problem, the government should consider enacting the following policies:
- Implement all recommendations highlighted in the National Food Strategy – this includes expanding eligibility for free school meals; extending the Holiday Activity and Food Programme; and increasing the value of Healthy Start Vouchers and expanding eligibility.
- Bolster Universal Credit and the wider benefits system given the fundamental driver of food insecurity is a lack of money.
- Coordinate and mobilise a national network of food redistribution.
- Devolve responsibility and funding for on the ground food distribution to local authorities who have the local knowledge, relationships and facilities necessary to cover the ‘last mile’ of food distribution.
- Introduce healthy eating programmes across all local authorities - long term, it is critical to take a more holistic approach to developing a healthier food ‘ecosystem’.
Aveek Bhattacharya, Chief Economist, Social Market Foundation said: “The stark evidence in this report shows that the challenge of food insecurity and child hunger is even greater and more urgent than many observers had thought and feared. The idea of a single child going short of food is heartbreaking but our evidence shows that almost 2 million children have been in that awful situation this year.
“Our analysis of food insecurity at a local authority level shows that this is a problem that is faced across the country, from our capital city to the rural south-west of England and the towns of the north-west. Food insecurity and child hunger are an urgent national challenge.
“Ministers and other leaders can help address the challenge of child hunger by expanding eligibility for free school meals and extending holiday food programmes. Because the fundamental driver of food insecurity is poverty, welfare must be bolstered, starting with retaining the £20 ‘temporary’ increase in Universal Credit,” he added.
Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “No young person should have to go hungry and ensuring vulnerable pupils are provided for is a top priority for councils who have worked hard with their partners to support children and families during the pandemic.
“Councils will be using the government’s £170 million winter funding package to help provide and oversee support to ensure children do not go hungry in the Christmas holidays and February half-term.
“We also want to work with government to ensure councils have the long-term sustainable funding to do more planned preventative work to address underlying causes of hardship and disadvantage, and provide support to all households who need it.
“As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come, it is also vital that the government restores local welfare funding so councils can provide preventative support to families who need it,” he concluded.
Measuring and mitigating child hunger in the UK