I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while now. It all began last summer when, amidst the debates on free school meals in the UK, Annunziata Rees-Mogg took it upon herself to explain to us all that food poverty was caused by the stupidity of poor people. I paraphrase of course, but the sentiment was there and I knew it was incorrect.
And so I combed through countless studies on food poverty to explain what it actually is. Here’s what I learned.
What is food poverty?
Food poverty is the inability to obtain healthy, affordable food options due to lack of accessibility, both economically and geographically.
Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods. Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit & vegetables
In 2017 UNICEF developed the first global estimates of food insecurity among households with children under age 15. Their report found that, globally, 41% of children under age 15 live in a moderately or severely food insecure household, and 19% live in a severely food insecure household.
In the UK, pre-pandemic food insecurity levels were at 11.5% amongst households with children. Since the pandemic, this has risen to 14% of adults living with children reporting moderate or severe food insecurity. This equates to 4 million people, including 2.3 million children.
Those on the lowest wages often live in food poverty, resulting in the lowest intakes of fruit and vegetables or fresh food in low-income households. Food poverty often results in a poor diet, which is linked to diet-related health issues such as cardiovascular disease and malnutrition. The impact on children is particularly stark.
The impact of household food insecurity on children’s physical and social lives is ubiquitous. For example, Cook et al. (2006) discovered a positive correlation between household food insecurity and incidence of childhood hospitalisation. [They] also found that children in food insecure households had more health problems than those in food secure households. Kirkpatrick, McIntyre, and Potestio (2010) determined that hungry children are more likely to report suffering from poor health than children who do not report being hungry. Notably, evidence is starting to emerge that suggests children facing food insecurity are more likely than their food secure peers to suffer from serious and life‐threatening outcomes (Seligman, Laraia, & Kushel, 2010).
What causes food poverty?
Firstly, it’s not an education issue. While this may be the case for a minority, both UK and US-based studies have found this is often untrue. Studies that involved talking with low-income communities found that people were knowledgeable about healthy eating, were unanimous on varied fruit and veg as essential, and cared about a healthy diet.
The words “fresh,” “organic,” “seasonal” and “local” were all mentioned in connection to F&V and health, in that respective order of frequency. Results from other studies concur with our findings that levels of knowledge about healthy foods among low-income shoppers tends to be high, suggesting that lack of knowledge is not the driving factor influencing food purchasing and dietary behaviors among this population
Food poverty is mainly caused by systemic factors.
While people may desire healthy diets, this doesn’t mean anything if they can’t afford them. Processed foods often have more calories, but cost less because they rely on efficient machinery rather than human labour to farm crops. Plus, countries like the USA don’t subsidise small scale, agroecological farms in the same way they support large scale wheat, soy, and corn agriculture, which are often vital components of processed food.
If you don’t have a lot of money it makes the most fiscal sense to get as full as you can as cheaply as possible. From the USA:
For families with limited financial resources, the need to stay within a fixed budget caused a trade-off between more healthful foods and, oftentimes, less healthy but calorie-dense foods, such as meat. As one participant reported: “I look at the asparagus and I realize that I can buy a big rib eye for the same price so I get the rib eye.”
And from the UK:
We rely a lot on frozen food. It is very hard to eat healthy meals. It’s affordability more than anything. To buy fresh fruit and veg, each week. It goes off so fast, and you constantly are topping up. And you know it is expensive when you are buying strawberries at two pounds a go and fresh grapes at two or three pounds a go…
Throwing away food items is equated to throwing away money, which is already in short supply. As a result, risk aversion becomes part of the process of food procurement
This gets even more pressing if households can’t afford to cover all of their needs financially.
Food shopping was seen as a lower priority than paying housing and utility bills, while most mothers had frequently cut down on food intake to keep their children fed.
You may have heard the term ‘food desert’ before, this refers to areas that lack shops with healthy food options within an accessible walking distance. Between 1986 and 1996, eight independent stores closed each day in the UK, predominantly in areas without alternatives. Those who don’t have access to a car or reliable public transport, the elderly and people with disabilities who live in these areas, therefore, aren’t easily able to get to shops and find healthy, affordable food.
Even those who do have cars or public transport access often cite high costs of fuel or travel, meaning that sometimes the closer options with poor quality food become the default due to price.
“food deserts”, tend to have few food retailers who sell healthful food products (e.g., fresh F&V) and more food retailers who sell less healthful foods…
According to data provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 23.5 million people (approximately 20%) in the U.S. live in low-income communities more than 1 mile from a supermarket.
Even if someone can get to some shops locally, for example, corner shops, they may not carry healthy food options, such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
Improvements in access and provision have been greater in higher income areas than lower income areas, and some of the poorest areas of the city have become worse off in terms of access to high quality food retailing following two decades of store building and rationalization.
Study participants who did live near a shop mentioned that the quality of foods at the local stores was inferior compared to other supermarkets in higher-income neighbourhoods. While these individuals had geographic access to a supermarket, they did not have access to quality food.
There have been both geographic and economic attempts to help these communities. In the USA there have been suggestions of a junk food tax on unhealthy foods, referring similar taxes on alcohol and cigarettes that have been effective (on a personal note: I have concerns on the potential messaging around this and its impact on disordered eating and fatphobia).
Some programmes attempt to make produce more affordable, such as Produce Prescriptions. These prescriptions enable doctors to give participants vouchers towards fresh fruit and vegetables, and studies suggest they are effective for families of all income levels.
What about opening new shops?
One suggested solution is to open new supermarkets in food deserts. However, studies in the late early 2000s in a UK food desert painted a more complex picture. In the food desert of the Seacroft Estate in Leeds, a new supermarket was opened. This regeneration was also linked to job creation for the area, and skills training for the local community, both of which could help the long term unemployed.
When it came to shopping, many did switch to the new store because of increased accessibility and convenience (particularly the store’s late opening hours), as well as the potential to save money and time due to increased variety under one roof and cheaper prices. At the same time, some also discussed the increased temptation that came with this variety, which could lead them to overspend tiny household budgets. Budget stores, and those with limited range, were seen as safer as people didn’t have to make efforts not to ‘stray into luxury aisles’.
Studies also found that the impact of the supermarket opening did have a positive impact on diet, especially for those whose access to more variety was improved by being walking distance from a store. Accessibility was improved, people could save money on fuel costs, and this made shopping easier for the elderly. However, this impact was modest overall. Regardless of the new supermarket, cost remained an issue. Opening shops can’t solve financial barriers.
Also, while the store was meant to improve social exclusion, many felt that a store as large as Seacroft wasn’t just designed for the local, low-income community.
focus group participants perceived it to be targeted at more affluent “outsiders”… Participants on the most limited incomes spoke about feeling intimidated by these “outsider” shoppers at the store. In addition, a surprising degree of resentment emerged amongst focus group participants about the form the new Seacroft Centre had actually taken… There were complaints about the loss of community spirit that was perceived to have existed in the old centre… Finally younger participants resented what they regarded as oppressive levels of surveillance, differentially directed at local residents of their age with little money to spend, by the security staff in the privatised space of the new store.
It seems the best solutions are those that are created with input from the actual community, making them more feasible and culturally appropriate.
Community food projects are working to tackle food poverty in their local areas, giving the power of choice and change back to local communities. Projects include food co-ops, community cafes, cooking and nutrition programmes and courses, markets, breakfast or lunch clubs, school tuck shops, peer training, and any project which works to improve people’s access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food.
Some of these ideas include:
Before UK debates around free school meals over holiday periods, a 2017 study examined the impact of holiday clubs on households during the summer holiday period. They found that when food secure and insecure households were compared, food-insecure households benefitted the most from holiday clubs, suggesting these clubs can play an important role in alleviating food poverty.
A 2015 American study also discussed solutions to food poverty. The study gathered opinions from low-income, ethnically diverse community members on increasing access to healthy foods in their communities. Local farmer’s markets were suggested as points of access for finding fresh, high quality produce. Previous studies have found that new farmer’s markets in low-income communities can increase fruit and vegetable intake while also benefitting local farmers, who are often low-income too.
However, cost was still mentioned as a barrier. Farmer’s markets were seen as a viable option for fresh produce, but they also needed to be consistent, at convenient times and locations and utilised in combination with financial schemes that helped low-income households afford fruit and vegetables.
Community gardens were also brought up by study participants. Lack of time was seen as a barrier to gardening to supplement healthy foods, but it was also acknowledged that gardening brings other benefits, especially for children, that make it worth it. Parents preferred the idea of community gardens at schools which could both increase food access and teach children about nutrition and health simultaneously.
Outside of a traditional school setting, initiatives such as May Project Gardens in London also do brilliant work in this area.
Just give people money
Ultimately, solutions to food poverty need to be systemic, because multiple economic and geographic barriers are often at play. I’m largely in favour of increased community gardens and farmers markets because this also helps create more resilient, local and sustainable food systems in general.
However, there was something I couldn’t stop thinking about when I was reading through these studies. Why not just give people money?
I do think that options such as food vouchers, which still give households agency to choose what they buy, free school meals for children and mutual aid food distribution are obvious choices for immediate solutions. If people are hungry, just feed them. But as I read through various coping strategies (the family always eats at home to save money, the family only buys seasonal produce to save money, the family unplugs the fridge to save money) all I could think was, just give them the money then.
Nearly every food poverty issue boils down to cost, and nearly every solution also has to factor in cost as a potential problem. Most studies suggest that people know what healthy food is, they just can’t afford it.
So instead of talking about vouchers or discounts on fruit and vegetables as our only policy options to change things, let’s talk about living wages and universal basic income. Nearly every UBI study has found it to be effective and the smart choice economically.
Let’s stop implying poor people are stupid, countless studies show that this isn’t true. Give people money, they’ll live better lives. The strain on health services will go down, and economies will remain steady. It’s really not that hard, perhaps Annunziata just has a lot more to learn.