Tackling hunger and food insecurity in the UK

We all have a right to food, yet household food insecurity persists in the UK. How can organisations, politicians and the public work together to find a solution?

Shopping bag with food
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Pioneering research from the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute into hunger and food insecurity is transforming the way in which we understand the UK’s increasing rates of food insecurity and the food charity response. Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford has been undertaking  research on household food insecurity, the rise of food aid and the right to food in the UK and Europe. 

Support from food charities has become the prevailing response to modern food insecurity, after changes to welfare provision and austerity policies  increased the need for support, placing increased pressure on charities. However, from a human rights perspective charitable responses are neither sustainable nor acceptable ways of addressing hunger.” 

Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford

Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield

In order to address these challenges, Hannah’s research has highlighted the need for a wider range of actors to work together to address food insecurity. The research findings have since been used as the basis for a number of NGO and public-led campaigns against food insecurity. 

The pivotal ‘End Hunger UK’ campaign launched in 2016, came to fruition through a collaboration between Church Action on Poverty (CAP), Oxfam and Save the Children, parliamentarians and the Feeding Britain campaign group. The campaign has been far reaching in its impact: since its launch, more than 18,000 individuals and 140 groups have signed petitions, written to their MPs and attended conferences and events in order to combat food insecurity. The Church Action on Poverty ‘Right to Food Sunday’ in February 2016 included  worship and reflection materials that CAP and Hannah put together on the right to food. These were used in churches across the country, taking the message about the right to food to an audience of 42,000 people. 

“NGOs have been front and centre of this issue for the last decade, the calls they have made for justice, fairness and upstream solutions to poverty have shifted the nature of the national conversation over access to food in the UK.” says Hannah

Although food insecurity remains a pervasive issue in the UK, Hannah’s research has produced evidence for the Government to address the issue. Working with CAP led to the production of the ‘Step up to the Plate’ report which was discussed at a parliamentary roundtable hosted by Emma Lewell Buck MP the then Shadow Minister for Education, Children and Families in 2018. The report recommended the Government  adopt a household food insecurity measure, which would facilitate a better understanding of the scale of the UK’s food insecurity, and was cited in  Emma Lewell Buck MP’s  Food Insecurity Bill recommending such a measurement. This was a key outcome for  the ‘End Hunger UK’ campaign.

Food Insecurity interventions during the pandemic

Small mixed race group of people working in charitable foundation food bank

During the Covid-19 pandemic the number of people facing food insecurity in the UK soared. Hannah and her team set out to map and monitor responses to risks of household food insecurity during the pandemic. The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through the UKRI Ideas to Address COVID-19 grant call and ran from July 2020 to January 2022. The research team is led by Hannah and Dr Rachel Loopstra (King’s College London) alongside colleagues from Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming and Church Action on Poverty. 

The research mapped and monitored responses from national policy through to local community level. Integral to the project was a participatory policy panel facilitated in coordination with Church Action on Poverty. The panel shared their experience of accessing food during the pandemic for both themselves and for their communities. Having shared their experiences and ideas, the panel developed five overarching lessons on how policy-makers, at all levels, could deliver better for those most at risk, in crises and at all times. 

“Through this project we have worked directly with people who have lived experience of food access issues, as well as policy makers and practitioners, to generate research that can inform evidence-based policy solutions.” explains Hannah.

The research highlighted the unprecedented nature of the response to food access issues during the pandemic. At a national level, responses varied across the different nations of the UK, but emergency food aid provision, emergency finance schemes, school food replacements and a grocery box scheme for people who were shielding were some of the biggest interventions covered in the research. Local case studies revealed that partnership working and working together was a key enabler of responses. Voluntary food aid was a key feature of local responses across areas and was provided by both new and existing initiatives. The research also found that rural and urban areas faced distinct food access challenges during the pandemic. 

The take away lessons for policy makers from the participatory policy panel were that (1) decision makers should hear from those that know, (2) food security is a fundamental human right, (3) we should rethink social security  so it truly offers sufficient support, at all times, (4) Crisis responses must be comprehensive, without compromising on dignity and choice (5) Individual households, communities, businesses and the state each have different strengths and roles, in a crisis and longer-term. 

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