A third of the UK’s poorest households are skipping meals because they cannot afford to put food on the table, according to a survey that highlights the extent to which austerity and rising food prices are driving “hidden hunger”.
Groups worst hit by benefit cuts and freezes, such as unemployed people and families with three or more children, were most likely to suffer food insecurity, while relatively protected groups, such as retired people, were least likely to experience such problems.
The survey, commissioned by the End Hunger UK coalition of charities, broadly reflects findings published last year by the Food Standards Agency, which reported that one in four low-income households struggled to eat healthily or regularly.
More than half of adults across all income groups, ages and household sizes agreed that they had seen the cost of their groceries go up over the past three months, reflecting rising food inflation.
Unemployed people were most at risk: 36% said they had skipped meals, compared with 12% of those in work, 31% were worried about having insufficient food and 25% said they had gone 24 hours without eating at some point over the past 12 months.
Both groups were likely to have relied on food banks: 13% of unemployed people and 11% of larger families had taken food parcels in the past 12 months, compared with just 1% of people in work and no pensioners.
The value of working-age benefits has been frozen since 2016, while state pensions have risen above the level of earnings and prices since 2010. The End Hunger survey found that just 6% of pensioners had skipped meals because they could not afford to buy food.
Garry Lemon, head of external affairs at the Trussell Trust, said: “It’s shocking, though not surprising, that unemployed people and parents with more children are more likely to go hungry or rely on friends or family for food – those are the groups who have seen their incomes squeezed as a result of successive governments’ cuts to benefits, or find it harder to secure long-term employment.”
Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields, whose food insecurity billgets its second reading on Friday, said: “Without a robust system of household food insecurity measurement in place, making policy to mitigate hunger will never become a reality.”
Laura Sandys, the chair of the Food Foundation thinktank and a former Conservative MP, said food insecurity had long-term health and social consequences. “We know that food insecurity can trigger a range of unhealthy eating habits and force people to buy cheaper, less nutritious and more calorific food.”
Over 2,200 adults were interviewed as part of the survey. Food insecurity is defined as going hungry, being at risk of going hungry, or being worried about going hungry because of a shortage of money.