Child food insecurity in the UK- three new SPERI Briefs published today

The Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute has today published a new three-part series of British Political Economy Briefs on child food insecurity in the UK. Together, the briefs, co-ordinated by SPERI Research Fellow Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford highlight the critical issue of children in the UK not having enough food to eat.

SPERI Brief 31 Children’s experiences of food and poverty: the rise and implications of charitable breakfast clubs and holiday hunger projects in the UK is by Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Lily Sims.

In the brief Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Lily Sims, Research Assistant at SPERI, draw attention to the rise of child feeding initiatives in light of rising food bank use among children and statistics on the number of children living in severely food insecure households in the UK. These initiatives include the provision of breakfast at breakfast clubs and holiday hunger initiatives, which provide lunch to children outside of term time in an attempt to make up for the lack of Free School Meals during holidays. Calls for the expansion of these programmes have been made, but largely in the absence of a critical review of the effectiveness of these types of programmes for alleviating child food insecurity.

The brief presents new findings from a scoping study of policy documents, academic literature, and websites of major child feeding providers. It highlights a shift in the positioning of Breakfast Clubs from a tool to promote education attainment and social inclusion to meeting the food needs of poor and hungry children. Evidence on the effectiveness of these programmes meeting their aims is patchy, limited and mixed. Breakfast club provision is operationally diverse, and holiday hunger provision is randomly provided on some days/weeks and only for a few hours when offered. Some studies on impacts of breakfast clubs on education, health, and social inclusion show positive effects, while some show no evidence of impact, and no studies have used direct measures of child food security to assess programme impacts on experiences of child hunger. Limited accessibility, unreliability, unaccountability and social unacceptability of child feeding programmes may ultimately limit their ability to address child food insecurity.

SPERI Brief 32 Family hunger in times of austerity: families using food banks across Britain is by Rachel Loopstra (Department of Nutritional Sciences, King’s College London) Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Ruth Patrick (School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool)

The authors analyse data from a survey of 598 households using Trussell Trust food banks across Britain. They examine how prevalent families with children are among households using food banks and identify characteristics that may make families with children vulnerable to food insecurity and the need to use food banks. Families with dependent children were over-represented in food banks, making up about 70 per cent of food bank families, but only 42 per cent of families in the general population. Data in the brief shows how it is lone parent families and larger families who are more likely to be using food banks. Among all households using food banks, it was households with children who were more likely to be in work compared to households without children.

Families receiving help from food banks had extremely low incomes and over 80 per cent of households with children were classed as severely food insecure. The authors highlight how the severity of food insecurity observed is a serious cause for concern for both health and social reasons.

SPERI Brief 33 Families and Food in Hard Times: rising food poverty and the importance of children’s experiences is by a research team at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, led by Rebecca O’Connell.

O’Connell shares research from a mixed-methods study of food poverty and food practices of low-income families in the UK, drawing from interviews with 45 families with children aged 11 to 15 years old and secondary analyses of the UK’s Living Costs and Food survey over 2005 to 2013. In 2013, over half of households with children were spending less on food than the basic amount needed for a nutritious and socially acceptable diet that allows for social participation. Lone parent families with two or three children and couples with four children were the most likely to be spending less than what is needed on food. In general, for all family types, over 2005 to 2013, the proportion of families spending less than what is needed has been rising.

From qualitative interviews with 45 low-income families, O’Connell reports that just under half of parents reported skipping meals or eating less than they felt they should so that others could eat. But even though parents strove to protect their children from hunger, children from some of these families described their own experiences of hunger and how they would give up their own food intake to protect younger siblings or share with their parents. Despite experiencing food insecurity, only eight of the families had used a food bank in the past year. Though grateful for the help, food banks were described as difficult to access, not providing culturally appropriate food, and not providing enough food. Families also described the inability to participate in social occasions involving food and eating.

Dr Rachel Loopstra, Lecturer in Nutrition, King’s College London:

“Together, these three new SPERI briefs point to the current inadequacy of social policies to ensure that children and their families always have enough food to eat in the UK and that they can do so in socially acceptable ways. Households with children are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity in the UK, and these briefs highlight how it is single parents and families with a larger number of children that have very high levels of risk. These findings are concerning given that entitlements for lone parent families and larger families are going to reduce in years to come.

“As Lambie-Mumford and Sims highlight, whilst policymakers and campaigners have sought other ways to ensure that children experiencing food insecurity receive food, there is little evidence that child feeding initiatives address household food insecurity. O’Connell highlights that whilst school food can play a vital role in reducing, if not eliminating nutritional and social inequalities, Free School Meals in Secondary Schools can be insufficient to compensate for a lack of food at home and also shame children leading to social stigma and fragmentation. Together, our work suggests food insecurity amongst households with children could be addressed by ensuring that families always have sufficient amounts of income to purchase enough food to meet their family’s food needs. In contrast, policy changes being rolled out since 2017 to child tax credits and the benefit freeze may mean that families with children may experience increasing food insecurity and be forced to seek more help from food banks.”