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Debate on tackling poverty and the cost of food, House of Commons

The combination of inflation, wage stagnation and real-terms cuts to benefits is pushing an increasing number of people into food insecurity.

Key messages

  • The combination of inflation, wage stagnation and real-terms cuts to benefits is pushing an increasing number of people into food insecurity. Food price inflation reached 17.1 percent in the four weeks preceding the 19 February 2023, equating to over an £643 increase in the average yearly food bill. The UK’s food poverty rate is now among the highest in Europe, with 9.77 million adults experiencing food insecurity in September 2022 and 4 million children in food poverty in January 2022.
  • Lack of income, rather than food scarcity, is the main driver of hunger, food poverty and food related health inequalities in England. While food inflation is expected to level off in in 2023, food prices remain high and people across our communities will continue to struggle to afford essentials. Without effective and meaningful intervention, rising food poverty will continue to cause hunger, drive health inequalities and result in poorer life chances.
  • Councils and local partners have delivered remarkable services and support and will continue to do what they can to protect people against the rising cost of living, targeting help at those facing the most complex challenges. The LGA is working with councils to take a cross-cutting approach to address all cost-of-living pressures, bringing together services including health, housing, welfare, social care, employment, transport, libraries and education. Our cost of living hub contains case studies, resources and data to share best practice and help councils support their residents.
  • We want to work with government to ensure we move from crisis support, towards improving life chances and building long-term resilience. As insufficient income is the primary cause of food poverty, it is our view that a reformed and adequately resourced national benefit system should provide the principal safety net for all low-income households and meet true living costs. This would reduce the growing demand for crisis support and enable councils to target limited local discretionary support to the most vulnerable people and those with complex needs.
  • In addition to reviewing the benefits system, there are several measures that Government should introduce to reduce food insecurity. We are calling on the Government to expand access to, and the value of, healthy start vouchers and expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals (FSM) to encompass all children and young people of school age who are in food poverty. Alongside this, Government should introduce automatic enrolment for FSM and Healthy Start, so that no eligible child misses out.
  • These measures could deliver long-term socio-economic benefits and contribute towards tackling inequality; reducing diet-related diseases and pressure on health service; and closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Food poverty

  • While rising prices have been felt by everyone, those on the lowest incomes have been the most severely impacted. Significant rises in energy prices in particular have left many of the poorest homes choosing between eating and heating. ONS data shows that 61 percent of people in the most deprived areas reported buying less food than in the previous year, compared to 44 percent in the least deprived areas.
  • Accessing food that is nutritious and healthy is an increasing challenging for those in our most disadvantaged communities. Poor diets are, per calorie, cheaper than healthier diets. Figures from the Food Foundation show that for households in the bottom 10 per cent of household income to follow healthy eating guidance, they would have to spend 74 per cent of their income on food. This underlines that for many low-income families, poor diets and food insecurity is not driven by ignorance or an inability to cook, but poverty.
  • The prevalence of obesity in children in the most deprived areas is already more than double that of those in the least deprived areas. The rising cost of living is therefore expected to have an ongoing knock-on impact on public health and deepen existing health inequalities.

National Food Strategy

  • The LGA welcomed the publication of the National Food Strategy. The strategy focuses primarily on escaping the junk food cycle, reducing diet-related inequality, making the best use of land and creating a long-term shift in our food culture to achieve more sustainable food production and the UK’s net zero ambitions.
  • The Government’s response to the National Food Strategy, and the decision to only take forward a limited number of the Strategy’s recommendations, was a missed opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of food insecurity, childhood obesity and the affordability and access to healthy, nutritious food.  

We continue to call on government to implement some of the recommendations in the strategy that were aimed to push children out of food poverty, such as increasing the threshold for Free School Meals and Healthy Start and funding multi-sector food partnerships that aim to move away from crisis provision and towards creating a sustainable local food system that can ensures everyone has access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food

National benefits reform

  • It is the LGA’s view that the national benefit system should provide the primary safety net for all low-income households and people who are not able to work. However, the basic rate of benefits is failing to meet people’s essential living costs. In February this year, research released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust found that Universal Credit allowance falls £140 short a month of the cost of food, energy and other essentials. In September 2022, over half (53 percent) of Universal Credit claimants faced food poverty.
  • In April 2023, benefits and the Benefit Cap will be increased in line with inflation and cost of living payments have been extended to help those on the lowest incomes with higher prices. While this will help to ease some pressures, these measures do not tackle the fundamental issue of the basic benefit rate not covering the true costs of living.
  • Unaffordable housing costs are pushing many households into poverty, which is compounded when people fall into rent arrears. Beyond April 2023, the Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which determines the amount of housing benefit private renters receive, will remain frozen at its March 2020 rate. This is despite rents expected to rise further this year. LHA no longer covers the cost of renting a modest two or three-bedroom homes in 91 per cent of England, with an average shortfall for a two-bedroom home of £547 a year.

As insufficient income is the primary driver of food poverty, reforming the national benefit system so that it covers households’ essential costs would be the most effective intervention to tackle rising food insecurity. This will require a cross-departmental response. Government must also re-align LHA rates to the 30th percentile of local rents and link them with rental inflation going forward.

Targeted interventions

  • In addition to national benefits reform, Government should also strengthen targeted measures to tackle food poverty and improve access to healthy food.
  • The Healthy Start scheme provides pregnant women and families with children under 4, who are in receipt of a qualifying benefit, with vouchers each week to buy nutritious food including fruit, vegetables, vitamins and fresh milk. National Food Strategy analysis found that the age criteria for the scheme (0-4 years) creates a nutritional gap between the support provided by Healthy Start Vouchers and FSM when a child enters reception. Over 250,000 children under 5 who face food insecurity are therefore missing out on vital support during this period. We are calling for the Government to:
    • Extend Healthy Start to children up to the age of 5, to close the current gap in support between healthy start and free school meals. 
    • Expand Healthy Start to all households on Universal Credit
    • Shift from an “opt in” to an “opt out” registration system, to help remove any barriers families face when applying online. 
    • Invest in an awareness raising campaign to promote uptake of the vouchers amongst eligible families, funded by underspend from the scheme.
  • Free school meals: Children are only eligible for FSMs if their family receives a qualifying benefit and has an annual household income under £7400. This criteria means that 1 in 3 children who live in poverty (800,000 children) are not eligible for the scheme. We are urging the Government to review the income threshold for FSMs and extend the offer to all children facing food insecurity. Currently parents have to enrol their children to receive free school meals, this is contributing to around 11 per cent of eligible children not receiving the benefit. To ensure no child misses out due to a lack of parental awareness, Government should urgently move to a system of automatic enrolment to ensure no child misses out due to lack of awareness of the scheme. 
  • As well as reducing hunger and hardship for the poorest children, widened access to healthy start vouchers and free school meals could have significant long-term health and socio-economic benefits. A recent report from the Food Foundation identified that expanding free school meal eligibility to all primary school students would generate £41.3 billion in direct benefits to pupils and a further £58.2 billion in indirect benefits to the wider economy, over a period of 20 years. Free School Meals are a benefit worth around £440 per year per child. In the context of spiralling food costs, any savings on inflated lunch box costs or on school lunches will be critical for families struggling with wider budget pressures resulting from the cost of living.
  • School lunches must meet school food standards and they generally provide higher nutritional value than packed lunches. The Government’s introduction of a universal offer of FSM for all infants has on average reduced the chances of a child becoming obese by 0.7 percent, proving more effective in reducing obesity than policies focussing on food education or physical activity. FSMs have also been linked to helping improve children from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their attention and academic performance.

Local action to tackle food poverty

Councils and the voluntary and community sector play a key role in tackling food poverty. This includes the provision of crisis support and wrap-around support to improve people’s long-term financial resilience, as well as initiatives that improve access to affordable, healthy food; improve local food sustainability and reduce food waste, and teach residents about nutrition and how to cook.

Food partnerships:

Food Partnerships have been established in over 100 cities, districts, counties and boroughs across the country, which are working to create healthier and more sustainable food systems. These partnerships bring together local stakeholders – including the council and voluntary and community organisations – to take a cross-cutting approach to food insecurity, food sustainability, public health and wider financial exclusion issues that lead to food poverty.

  • The Middlesbrough Food Partnership, which is supported by Middlesbrough Council, is working towards creating a local food system where people can eat good quality, healthy food that is easy to buy, offers value for money and is produced locally wherever possible. The partnership has worked with the council to develop and implement a food poverty action plan and have established local initiatives to improve access to the local welfare safety net, increase the uptake of Healthy Start vouchers and drive up the number of local retailers which accept Healthy Start vouchers.

Local welfare support:

Councils are currently delivering the latest round of the Household Support Fund grant. This is often in addition to their own existing Local Welfare Assistance Schemes.

Local crisis support plays an important role in addressing immediate need and councils continue to offer targeted support to alleviate the pressures facing low-income households. For example, many councils in England are supporting families entitled to Free School Meals during the school holidays. This is usually via a cash transfer or supermarket voucher that can be used at a variety of retailers.

Alongside, all councils are also offering an application-based element of local welfare, that is available to households who are struggling but not necessarily entitled to FSMs. This support will be crucial in the coming months for families that are just above the £7,400 threshold and struggling to put food on the table.

We continue to press the Government to restore local welfare funding and put it on a permanent footing. As the high cost of living and rising poverty continues, crisis support, alongside reform to the mainstream benefit system, will continue to play an important roll in ensuring that all households are food secure.

Local free school meals offers:

Despite significant budget pressures, several English councils have made the decision provide a universal offer of free school meals for all primary school pupils in their areas.

For example, since 2013 Southwark Council have run a Free Healthy School Meals (FHSM) programme has universally provided a free school lunch for all primary school students in Key Stage 2, to tackle food poverty and childhood obesity. This supplements the central government-funded, means-tested Free School Meals (FSM) and Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM). 38 percent of children in Southwark live in poverty, yet many whose families earn above the £7,400 a year threshold would not be eligible for free school meals under the national offer.

Research by the University of Essex, which studied the impact of universal primary free school meal provision in Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Islington, found that the schemes have helped to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity (by 9.3 percent among Reception children and 5.6 percent among Year 6 children on average) and help families cope with the cost of living, saving them £37 per child per month on average.