Food insecurity is a growing problem in the UK. A study published today in BMC Public Health deals with the framing of food insecurity in UK national newspapers and provides insight into public and political attitudes to food insecurity and possible interventions to address the problem. Authors Amy Yau and Jean Adams tell us more on their blog.

What is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity can be defined as “the inability to eat a sufficient quality or sufficient amount of food in a socially acceptable manner, or the uncertainty that one can do so”. In addition to hunger, this definition captures the dimensions of food insecurity (or food poverty) that are sometimes overlooked: stability, ability to act and sustainability. Can people always access food? Can you do this in a way that is free from shame and stigma? Will the current food system work for us all in the long term?

Depiction of food insecurity in British newspapers

Food insecurity is a major and growing problem in the UK. We estimated that 24% of UK adults were food insecure in 2017 – and used blackboards, among other coping mechanisms, to feed their families. Our study aimed to understand the way newspapers were treating the issue of food insecurity – how the problem and drivers were portrayed. This gives an insight into the attitudes to the problem, the possible solutions and their acceptance by various interest groups.

The picture our work painted was a nuanced one, portraying many social, political and economic factors as contributing to the growing problem of food insecurity. In essence, people didn’t have enough money to meet their needs. The reasons for this were often given: low wages, insecure jobs, unemployment and high cost of living.

But further upstream we saw more arguments. Charities and advocacy groups highlighted the structural barriers to meeting the cost of living – austerity measures, funding cuts, measures that exacerbate social inequalities. The introduction of the Universal Credit social security system (introduced to replace several means-tested benefits) was also seen as a major contributing factor to the problem, particularly the long wait (of at least 5 weeks) when switching from the old system to Universal Credit.

The voices of charities, interest groups and the general public seemed united in the news articles – people urged the government to take action. However, the government has been portrayed as reluctant to admit links between social policies and increasing food insecurity. Government officials called food insecurity a “cash flow” problem and sponsored charities to help people with food insecurity.

Our work shows a separation between the problem and the solutions. The problem was portrayed as systemic, while the solutions relied heavily on charity – solutions that at best provide short-term relief for families with hunger, poor diets, and the social consequences of food insecurity.

Holiday hunger

The issue of “holiday hunger” (hunger children experience during school holidays, often because they no longer get free school meals) has given the problem more attention. This has led to a number of policy actions, such as the Children’s Future Study on Food and the House of Lords Special Committee study on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment.

A debate has raged in the media over meal vouchers for children, who typically receive free school meals at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Activists pressured the government to distribute food vouchers to low-income families throughout the summer. Their success in reversing the government’s decision not to provide assistance during the summer vacation shows that the news media is a powerful advocacy tool.

Food insecurity in the UK after the pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic out of the way, many of the economic factors contributing to food insecurity will have worsened. Urgent action is needed to protect families from food insecurity, with an emphasis on solutions that appeal to upstream drivers rather than relying on chalkboards and other forms of charitable food aid.

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