IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Tackling food poverty

Household food insecurity – or food poverty – has risen in the UK and many wealthy western societies as global crises have exposed and exacerbated existing social inequalities.

Child’s legs jumping on wooden blocks in a school playground with white text ‘Confronting disadvantage.’

IOE researchers are working to raise awareness of the causes and consequences of low-income families’ experiences and change government policies so that children no longer have to experience food poverty.

An IOE study led by researchers in the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU) used a comparative mixed methods design to examine the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on the food practices of children aged 11-15 years and their parents in low-income families in three European countries – the UK, Portugal and Norway. In the UK, poverty and food poverty are often the result of low pay and low social security benefits, compounded by government austerity measures that hit the poorest families hardest following the 2008 financial crisis. The quantitative part of the study found that families of low-income lone parents are more likely to experience food poverty than those families headed by couples.

The qualitative part of the study found that mothers, who are almost always the ‘food managers’, juggled their highly constrained budgets to feed their families. Whilst a few mothers in the study went to food banks, all ‘shopped around’ in different supermarkets and locations in search of bargains to feed their children. Most relied on public transport, an additional expense and time constraint. Many lacked the money to bulk buy food and so lived ‘hand to mouth’.

The unequal distribution of entitlement and access to food is increasingly a feature of wealthy western societies. We found that even with adults cutting back on their own food intake, children in about one quarter of the families in the study in each country mentioned going without enough to eat at times. But, in some countries, free and subsidised school meals seem to have a protective effect."

Emeritus Professor Julia Brannen.

Mothers everywhere sought to protect their children from the worst direct effects of food poverty by cutting back on their own food intake and were often reluctant to admit their children were going without adequate food. Still, in about one quarter of the families, the children in each country mentioned going without enough to eat at times.

Not only does food poverty impact families’ nutritional health, it also entails social exclusion. In the study, children mentioned difficulties in concentrating at school, being unable to join in social activities and feeling different from their peers. In particular, children mentioned feeling shamed by poverty and frustrated about the injustices of social inequality. Whilst young people understood parents’ obligations to feed their families, they also recognised that they could not always meet these. In these circumstances, they argued, those in power have a duty to act.

In providing high quality evidence for organisations concerned with poverty and its effects on children and families, the study aimed to have social impact. Collaborating with the Child Poverty Action Group, the research team developed UK policy recommendations and engaged with public, political and policy audiences. Recommendations include bringing in national laws that should include and enforce the human right to food; ensuring wages and benefits enable families to afford diets that meet their needs for both health and social participation; and providing free healthy school meals for all children in compulsory schooling.

The study has contributed to the increasing visibility of children’s experiences of food poverty and supported interventions to address its causes, for example the expansion of school food provision.

Food is fundamental. Children’s health, education and social lives are blighted by poor nutrition and opportunities to participate in customary food and eating practices. The UK government must recognise, as young people do, that ensuring our children can eat properly is a duty it shares with parents."

Dr Rebecca O'Connell, Reader in the Sociology of Food and Families.