Supermarkets must help those in England’s ‘food deserts’, says Which?

Consumer group’s research shows acute lack of access to healthy, affordable food in some areas

The big supermarkets need to step up support for low-income customers marooned in England’s “food deserts” to enable them to readily access healthy groceries during the cost of living crisis, according to the consumer group Which?.

The scarcity of affordable, healthy food is so acute in some of the poorest parts of Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Durham and the Welsh valleys that the vast majority of neighbourhoods in these areas should get targeted help, Which? says.

The study found nearly half of neighbourhoods in the north-east of England – and about a third in Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the north-west of England – lacked easy access to supermarkets, and had poor availability for online deliveries and low levels of car ownership, making it much harder for low-income households to put food on the table.

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All of the neighbourhoods in the Birmingham Hodge Hill parliamentary constituency lacked easy access to cheap and healthy supermarkets, the Which? study found. It cited a local food bank volunteer, David Fletcher, who said: “Where this food bank is, there’s no supermarket within two miles.”

There is a similar scarcity of affordable food shops in Knowsley on Merseyside, according to the study, which found that the constituency had half the UK average number of large supermarkets, with 96% of local neighbourhoods unable to easily access affordable and healthy food shops.

Some rural areas that do not normally figure prominently in indexes of deprivation are identified by Which? as having poor access to affordable food, such as the South West Norfolk constituency of the former prime minister Liz Truss, where 70% of neighbourhoods have limited access to supermarkets and other food shops.

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All the areas most in need of food support tend to have higher levels of poverty, deprivation and fuel poverty, greater use of food banks and higher take-up of free school meals, the study says.

The problem of “food deserts” has long been an issue in economically deprived areas, with poor or expensive public transport links to those larger supermarkets most likely to offer good-value produce. However, rising prices and low incomes have highlighted the problem, with 14 million people in the UK currently experiencing food insecurity.

On a regional basis, the north-east of England is the worst affected, with nearly half (45%) of local neighbourhoods facing poor access to cheap and healthy food, closely followed by Yorkshire and the Humber (37%), the West Midlands (36%) and the north-west (32%).

This contrasts with relatively high levels of affordable food access in London and the south-east, according to the study, which was carried out by researchers at the University of Leeds. Just 4% of neighbourhoods in the capital are likely to experience a dearth of access to cheap, fresh food, and 7% in the south-east.

With the poorest households hit hardest by rising energy and food bills, Which? called on national supermarket chains to help low-income customers in so-called “priority” areas by expanding budget food brands, targeting them with fruit and vegetables promotions, and making it easier to access online deliveries.

Sue Davies, Which? head of food policy, said: “We know that millions of people are skipping meals through the worst cost of living crisis in decades but our new research tells us where around the UK support is most urgently needed.

“The supermarkets have the ability to take action and make a real difference to communities all around the UK. That’s why we’re calling on them to ensure everyone has easy access to budget food ranges that enable healthy choices, can easily compare the price of products to get the best value and that promotions are targeted at supporting people most in need.”

However, Andrew Western, chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said the welfare system should be generous enough to reflect true living costs such as travel to supermarkets and online delivery charges. “Benefits should also be fair and sufficient to support households’ access to supermarket food,” he said.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “The rising cost of living is a significant concern for both retailers and their customers. Retailers are determined to support their consumers with the cost of living, such as by expanding value ranges, keeping the price of essentials down, and introducing discounts for vulnerable groups.”

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Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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