Are there more hungry people in the UK?

Meeting Minds 2019

Last Friday Dr Aaron Reeves gave our annual lecture for the ‘Meeting Minds’ Oxford Alumni weekend. In front of a packed audience, Aaron took us through recent data from the Trussell Trust showing a big rise in food bank usage – and looked at some possible explanations for this.

He noted that there has been an expansion of food aid in the UK, both within the Trussell Trust network, and in other sources of food aid. But it’s not enough to account for the extent of the rise in people accessing food aid. Another proposal is that the food is free, so more people are choosing to access it. But Aaron explained that although food aid seems to be a free good, there are a number of hidden costs to using food banks – such as needing a referral, the costs of traveling to a food bank, and the perception of stigma attached.

He went on to point out that food bank usage is not necessarily food insecurity. This is because many people experiencing food insecurity may not access food banks. Indeed the scale of the problem could be much bigger.

Data which focuses instead on food insecurity can indeed appear even more alarming. A survey in 2016 showed 10,000,000 adults in the UK experiencing food insecurity, of whom 1,320,000 reported experiencing hunger on a regular basis. But that’s a snapshot at one point in time – does it represent a rise?

Aaron’s recent research has brought together a number of data sources to investigate this. They found that there had been a significant rise in food insecurity, particularly among households with a disability or some sort of impairment. Food bank usage data is in fact an underestimation of the levels of food insecurity in the population.

This brought us on the question of why food insecurity is rising. An emerging narrative is that it’s a failure of the welfare state, which some politicians strongly deny. Aaron and fellow researchers have been looking at recent major changes in the logic of social security (benefits conditionality, and more recently, Universal Credit) to see whether there are links between welfare changes and food insecurity (for example a recent study on the impact of sanctioning on food bank usage).

The answer to whether there are more hungry people in the UK is ‘yes, probably’ - particularly among low-income households and those living with disability. There are warning signs we could be heading towards Frank Field’s prediction of Universal Credit becoming a ‘human and political catastrophe’. But Aaron concluded with a call for better access to data, so that the links between the welfare system and food insecurity can be more fully understood.