The coronavirus pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on the nutritional health of the UK’s poorest citizens with as many as one in 10 forced to use food banks, and vast numbers skipping meals and going hungry, according to the government’s food safety watchdog. Food insecurity in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was experienced by about 16% of adults – equivalent to up to 7.8 million people.
This figure more than doubled under Covid-19 and has remained stable over the first four months of the pandemic. Food bank use has remained high, with one in 10 people reporting they had accessed one in June. Separate figures published by Food Standards Scotland found 5% used food banks. Prior to Covid-19 best estimates put UK food bank use at about 2% of adults. Despite the surge in numbers using food banks since lockdown, the FSA’s qualitative study noted that many of the struggling people interviewed said they had avoided food charity because they felt too ashamed at being unable to provide for their family, and would rather cut meals rather than accept handouts.
Food insecurity has shot up even further since lockdown as people’s income reduced, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said, heightening the risk both of malnutrition and obesity as struggling families adopted highly restrictive “basic sustenance” diets that largely cut out healthy foods.
Food during the Covid crisis was “a continual source of concern and worry” rather than nourishment and security for many families, it found. “Many quickly cut calorie intake and reduced the quality of the food eaten – with far-reaching physical and emotional impact. Many children went without.”
Increasing food prices meant some doubled their food spend, even though they ate less. Many struggled to afford food used to manage their health – such as gluten-free. Birthday meals and Sunday lunches were cancelled. “There was little sense of social sharing when serving toast for the second ‘meal’ of the day.”
The FSA is concerned that many people in food insecurity reported regularly eating food beyond its use-by date such as bagged salad, cheese and smoked fish. Over a quarter said they drank milk that was past its use-by date. “Stretching out” food in this way put them at risk of food poisoning.
“Our research shows our food habits changed rapidly in lockdown and that food insecurity has become an issue for many people,” said the FSA’s chief executive, Emily Miles.
Food insecurity is broadly defined as experiencing hunger, the inability to secure food of sufficient quality and quantity to enable good health and social participation, and cutting down on food because of a lack of money.
For the better off, Covid-19 has for many provided nutritional benefits, the FSA noted, with its tracker survey showing more people cooking at home from scratch using healthy ingredients rather than having takeaways or buying processed meals, as well as enjoying more family meals together.
These benefits were largely denied to people in food insecurity, whose diet narrowed sharply and was biased towards cheap carbohydrates like rice and pasta. One man, the FSA study found, “ate mostly tinned peas on toast; another woman mostly bread.” Many showed “early signs” of malnutrition. Others put on weight.
The FSA's independent Covid-19 expert advisory panel had identified food insecurity as a “prioritise and act” issue – echoing the findings of the recently published National Food Strategy, which concluded that post-lockdown recession many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately.
The FSA said its independent Covid-19 expert advisory panel had identified food insecurity as a “prioritise and act” issue – echoing the findings of the recently published National Food Strategy, which concluded that post-lockdown recession many more families will struggle to feed themselves adequately.
“These reports speak of the brutal reality of being too poor to put a meal on the table and how debilitating this is for households with children,” said Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation thinktank. “All scenarios point to a worsening of this bleak situation..."