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Food poverty and unfair distribution: How can we achieve a zero-hunger UK?

Written by Chun Yu "Freddy" Cheng

Ecological Economics

Despite special offers at your local supermarket chain, eating well is still a luxury for an increasing number of households in the United Kingdom.

Trussell Trust, one of the biggest food banks in the U.K. provided more than 1.3 million of three-day emergency food supplies to people in hunger during 2017-2018 [1]. Compared to the previous 3 financial years, people receiving food supplies from the trust has had a 13% increase.

There has been a large increase in usage of emergency food supplies. Source: The Trussell Trust [1].

More than 2000 food banks are operating in U.K. and the demand is expected to rise in the future [2]. Massive growth in the number and usage rates of food banks reflect the harsh reality that rising proportion of the population cannot afford to feed themselves and their family.

Research found that food poverty have negative impacts on human health physically and mentally [3]. Lack of affordable healthy food selection for people facing food poverty could lead to obesity as they can only afford to buy unhealthy, cheap food which are high in sugar and fat. People suffering from food poverty are at higher risk to depression or other mental illnesses [4].

Unfair income distribution is correlated to food poverty [5] – over 35% of the gross national income goes to the richest 10% of people in the U.K., while the poorest 10% have only 2.5% [6]. This shows the high degree of income inequality in Britain.

The saddening part is, in the U.K., unfair distribution of income is believed to be the main reason of increasing levels of food insecurity. Despite the fact that over 80% of the people using food banks rely on benefits due to illness, disabilities or unemployment, benefit cuts are often inappropriately applied which results in people having to go to food banks. A survey showed that “Unemployment”, “Low income” and “Benefit sanctions” account for more than 30% of referrals to a foodbank [7].

More families have to make difficult decision between putting food on the table and paying the bills. Although some clients of food banks are employed, they are still struggling due to job insecurity, minimal wage and rise in food prices [8]. For example, people on zero hour contracts do not have a stable income on a week-to-week basis. Over half of impoverished children in the U.K. have parents that are in work, but still find it difficult to provide sufficient food for the household. The urgency of income inequality triggers dynamic and behavioural changes. People of lower income have begun trading off wholesome, healthy meals for other necessities as they are financially more elastic. Research has found that one in five mothers regularly skip meals just to feed their children. Furthermore, the police have reported an increase in food-related shoplifting as some parents are desperate to feed their children [9].

It is safe to assume that reduction in income inequality is key to the decline in food poverty [10].

Undoubtedly, food banks can be a short-term crisis response to the immediate needs of people suffering from food insecurity. They are, however, not a solution.

As poverty and the growing income inequality between rich and poor are the obvious cause of food poverty, fundamental changes on our labour policy and welfare system are crucial to solve the problem substantially. Implementation of strong policies is needed to fight against unfair income distribution.

More protective labour laws should be introduced. Being in the workforce in the U.K. does not necessarily provide sufficient living income to live above the breadline [11]. A rise in minimum wage increases living standards for workers whereas currently, the wage level has not kept up with inflation. Food prices in the U.K. have increased 32% during the economic crisis, but income level remains stagnant. Also, the abandonment of zero hour contracts should be considered. A worker in full employment has an average of 37 weekly working hours [12], in contrast to 25 hours for a worker on a zero-hour contract.  With low minimum wage and unstable hours, workers find it impossible to plan their future as the income is not guaranteed. The government should put policies in place to regulate employers in providing adequate living wages to their employees.

The government should also deliver an effective welfare system to reduce food poverty. Welfare such as universal tax credit and food stamps could be beneficial to low income families. Some social care programmes operated by local authorities such as Healthy Start Vouchers, Free School Meals and Meals on Wheels should continue to help the people who are eligible [13].

Instead of relying on charities to solve this incumbent issue, local and national authorities should take the responsibility to reduce in-work poverty and ensure the accessibility of affordable healthy food.



  1. The Trussell Trust. End of year stats. [Online]. 2018. [Accessed 2 November 2018]. Available from:
  2. Cloke, P., May, J. and Williams, A. The geographies of food banks in the meantime. Progress in Human Geography. 2016, 1, pp.1-24.
  3. Jones, A. 2017. Food Insecurity and Mental Health Status: A Global Analysis of 149 Countries. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 52(2), pp.264-273.
  4. Siefert, K., Heflin, C., Corcoran, M. and Williams, D. Food Insufficiency and Physical and Mental Health in a Longitudinal Survey of Welfare Recipients. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2004, 45(2), pp. 171-186.
  5. Epule, E., Peng, C., Lepage, L. and Chen. Z. Poverty and Gender Oriented Vulnerabilities to Food and Water Scarcity in Touroua, Cameroon. Journal of Human Ecology. 2017, 2, pp.81-90.
  6. Partington, R. How unequal is Britain and are the poor getting poorer? [Online]. 2018. [Accessed 2 November 2018]. Available from
  7. The Trussell Trust. “Benefit levels must keep pace with rising cost of essentials” as record increase in foodbank figures is revealed. [Online]. 2018. [Accessed 2 November 2018]. Available from:
  8. Butler, P. Record 60% of Britons in poverty are in working families – study. [Online]. 2017. [Accessed 2 November 2018]. Available from:
  9. Butler, P. Food poverty: 'I was brought up not to steal. But that's how bad it's got'. [Online]. 2013. [Accessed 2 November 2018]. Available from:
  10. Karmakar, S. and Sarkar, D. Income Inequality, Poverty and Food Security in West Bengal, India. Journal of Social Science Studies. 2014,1(1), pp.34-43.
  11. Kerridge, K. and Alcock, R. Nine steps to end food poverty in the UK. [Online]. 2017. [Accessed 4 November 2018]. Available from:
  12. Clegg, R. Source dataset: Labour market statistics time series (LMS). [Online]. 2018. [Accessed 4 November 2018]. Available from:
  13. Courea, E. Less than half of councils still offering meals on wheels. [Online]. 2018. [Accessed 4 November 2018]. Available from: