Rethinking Food Insecurity in the UK: Policy Challenges, Opportunities and Future Paths

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Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang

On Wednesday 10th April 2024, IPPO convened a panel of experts on food insecurity from across the UK to explore the realities and experiences of those who are food insecure.

Phillippa McKeown of the Consumer Council Northern Ireland, Dr Mark Shevlin, Professor of Psychology at Ulster University,
Dr Andrew Williams, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University, Karen Williams, Project Lead at Foodbank Plus
and Abby Preston, Project Officer at Independent Food Aid Network UK discussed the complexities in providing emergency food support and how to develop sustainable better anti-poverty policy solutions.

Please watch below…

Below is a summary of the presentations.

Consumers’ experience of rising food costs in Northern Ireland

The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland (CCNI) is the statutory consumer body for Northern Ireland and provides free, independent support and advice to all consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland. The experience of food poverty is markedly different in Northern Ireland, than anywhere else in the UK, reflected Philippa McKeown-Brown, the Head of Food Policy and Emerging Markets at the CCNI. Compared to the other nations of the UK, Northern Ireland has higher rates of economic inactivity, almost double the number of Disability and Carer’s benefit recipents and the lowest levels of household income.

According to CCNI’s Northern Ireland Household Expenditure Tracker, lowest earning consumers report spending almost half of their income on basic food, housing, electricity, gas and fuel costs. Equally, CCNI research demonstrates how food cost inflation has negatively impacted consumers’ mental health as people struggle to access basic necessities.

Families with children face additional childcare costs, and Northern Ireland is currently developing its childcare strategy to improve support. Consumers report that unexpected circumstances left them with no choice but to visit a food bank.

Looking forward, the CCNI believes emergency food support is likely to be a standard feature of food poverty policy and highlights that a rights-based, government-led approach is needed tackle multifaceted poverty. The organisation advocates for a ‘cash first’ policy approach. Offering direct financial assistance allows for individuals to exercise personal preference, promotes dignity and reduces the stigma associated with food aid.

A Cash First Approach to Food Insecurity

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) represents and advocates on behalf of hundreds of independent food aid providers operating across the UK including over 550 independent food banks.

In partnership with 123 UK local authority areas, IFAN’s cash-first referral (CFR) scheme offers people advice on their existing financial entitlements and how to maxime their income. The scheme is designed to provide people with immediate financial relief, and a similar version also operated in Scotland.

Project officer, Abby Preston, described the wide variety of types of food aid assistance available including emergency food banks, charitable food pantries, social supermarkets. She highlighted that a large extent of the UK population are currently experiencing food insecurity but not receiving food assistance. IFAN recently reported that 98% of clients they support are from people who had not previously asked for help before.

As more and more people turn to emergency food aid, IFAN fears that charitable food providers will be unable to assist everyone who seeks support, should demand continue to rise. Instead, they advocate that policymakers should prioritise ‘cash first’ incentives and better fund frontline advisory services to support those in financial constraint.

As an organisation, IFAN advocates for government to provide a living income, and fund permanent local crisis support and frontline advisory agencies.

How Should Policymakers Respond to Growing Need for Emergency Food Services?

Professor Mark Shevlin and Dr Orla McBride introduced their cross-UK collaborative project, the Covid 19 Psychological Research Consortium Study. The study aims to monitor and assess the long-term psychological, social, economic and political impact of the pandemic on the lives of ordinary adults in the general population, which includes experiences of food insecurity and cost-of-living.

According to their findings, mounting household debt and a persistent fear of job redundancy have exacerbated the UK nation’s experience of food insecurity. Food insecurity data indicates that people earning below £25,000 a year reported eating a limited diet, reducing their food intake and experiencing higher anxiety over the cost of purchasing balanced, nutritious meals. Since the pandemic, the number of surveyed individuals using foodbanks has tripled. Respondents who had reported approaching a food bank were predominantly from single income households and were earning less than £300 a week.

In their most recent wave of data (2023), 4 out of 5 adults reported facing increased household costs within the last 12 months including reduced usage of home gas and electricity. The issue of food and fuel poverty are particularly interconnected in Northern Ireland where a large proportion of homeowners still use home-heating oil to keep their homes warm. The collection of longitudinal data on new attitudinal and anecdotal evidence remains critical if policymakers are to understand the breadth of diverse needs which may vary from citizen to citizen. In Northern Ireland, the Department for Communities and the Just Transition project are working towards a new strategy to address fuel poverty and its residual impacts.

Government Policy Helped Create the Circumstances for Foodbanks

To prompt a realistic steer for future policy recommendations, Dr Andrew Williams, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University emphasises that current anti-austerity measures only serve to reproduce the permacrises of regional deprivation affecting people and places throughout the most deprived areas in the UK. Amid a local authority funding crisis, the burdens of higher costs of living and a growing demand for food provision, he highlighted that it is difficult to entertain a future where emergency food providers are not overstretched as well as under-resourced.

Andrew Williams advocates an alternative model, where food co-operatives take the place of food banks. Food co-operatives are community-owned and governed by their members. Food is provided and based on members’ preferences and available cooking facilities. A key feature of this model is that those in need are not required to follow referral administration procedures. Further, as the cooperatives are community owned, they promote self-sustainability and are not limited to providing short-term emergency assistance.

Ending UK poverty requires allocated and ample financial resource – a challenge in fiscally constrained times. Future anti-poverty interventions should involve the creation of strategic partnerships between local authorities, and include lived experience in their production, advised Williams. Equally, policymakers should pay attention to wealth tax reforms if they are to make any progress in eradicating poverty. Moving forward, without addressing poverty as a fiscal problem and without redistributive tax justice, future options for closing the poverty gap will likely remain limited over the next five years.

Why We Treat Those Who Use Our Foodbank As Respected ‘Clients’

Shrewsbury Food Bank is an independent food bank that organises and distributes parcels of donated food, toiletries, cleaning products and household items to individuals and families every week, explained Karen Williams, Project Lead at Foodbank Plus.

The SFB services also offers lines of support lines outside of emergency food supplies. Often people who require the services of emergency and charitable food provision do not present with one problem. Through their 360 scheme, Karen’s team offer support to help with digital inclusion, housing and welfare, as well as administrative assistance. 

Moving forward, it is essential that food banks and referrers work to ensure the dignity, respect and quality in services for the benefit of each client. Key partnerships with housing associations and various other charity organisations are critical to ensure the diverse needs of those in crisis can be handled effectively. Pertinent to these relationships are transparency and embedded services that are on hand to respond as required, which is why many partner organisations are on-site at SFB.

The Food bank Plus model aims to empower the physical and mental wellbeing of clients, as well as offering them food support in times of crisis.


The panel’s concluding discussion on rethinking food insecurity in the UK highlighted the multifaceted challenges faced by individuals and families across the nation. From rising food costs to the inadequacy of current food aid models, the speakers underscored the urgent need for a shift towards more sustainable and dignified solutions. Suggestions such as implementing a cash-first approach, fostering community-owned initiatives such as food cooperatives, and expanding support services beyond emergency food assistance emerged as key strategies. As policymakers grapple with the complexities of poverty and inequality, the call for bold yet pragmatic action reverberates, emphasising the importance of inclusive partnerships, holistic support systems, and a persistent commitment to addressing the root causes of food insecurity.

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