Millions forced to skip meals as UK cost of living crisis deepens

More people – including children – going hungry than during first weeks of Covid lockdown, new data shows

Millions of people were forced to skip meals or go a whole day without eating in recent months, new data shows.

As the UK’s cost of living crisis deepened, nearly one in five families experienced food insecurity in September, meaning more people went hungry than during the chaotic first weeks of the Covid lockdown, the Food Foundation charity said.

Hunger levels have more than doubled since January, according to the foundation’s latest tracker, with nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children unable to eat regular meals last month, prompting calls for stronger measures to protect vulnerable households.

These included demands for free school meals to be made available to an extra 800,000 children, amid reports of hungry school kids stealing food from classmates, skipping lunch because they could not afford school meals, or bringing in packed lunches containing just a single slice of bread.

Campaigners also condemned the government’s refusal to rule out real-terms cuts to benefits, which it is estimated would leave already struggling families hundreds of pounds a year worse off. More than half of universal credit claimants were struggling to get the food they needed, the foundation’s tracker found.

The leading public health expert Sir Michael Marmot called the rise in hunger “alarming”, and told the Guardian it would have damaging health consequences for society’s worst off, including increased occurrences of stress, mental illness, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.


A separate survey of primary schools by Chefs in Schools found half were providing a free meal for children in poverty who were ineligible for free school meals, over two thirds were referring parents to food banks, and just under 50% were offering food parcels for families themselves.

“This research reveals the shocking reality that teachers see daily,” said the charity’s chief executive, Naomi Duncan.

“The situation is appalling and getting so much worse. We call on the government to urgently extend eligibility for free school meals to all families receiving universal credit, so that support reaches the kids who need it most.”

The growth in food insecurity has accompanied the shrinking spending power of low-income families caused by static wages and benefit cuts in recent years.

Faced with “heat or eat” choices, they have often opted to rein in food spending, although the recent squeeze has left some households too poor to afford either.

Food insecurity is a relatively new formal metric designed to gauge the numbers of people who struggle to get the food they need because of lack of money or access. It has been formally adopted by the UK Food Standards agency, which warned in June that increasing poverty meant food insecurity was “escalating rapidly”.

The Food Foundation has tracked food insecurity since just before the pandemic, using nationally-representative surveys of more than 4,200 adults. During the first fortnight of lockdown in March and April 2020, 14% of households skipped meals as supermarket shelves emptied and food supplies were massively disrupted.

Its next few surveys showed food insecurity rates dropped and stabilised at between 7-8% after the government’s programme of Covid support for struggling families was introduced, including a £20 a week boost to universal credit, furlough, and the funding of emergency food supplies to food banks.


Since January, however, rising food and energy bills, coupled with the removal of Covid support, has precipitated a sharp rise in hunger. Despite the introduction of government’s cost of living support measures, more than two thirds of food-insecure families said they cooked less, or turned off fridges to cut energy costs.

Last month, more than 18% of UK households said they had reduced the size of meals or skipped them altogether, 11% reported not eating despite being hungry, and 6% said they had not eaten for a whole day. Food insecurity was highest in larger families, the tracker found.

Cash-strapped families were not only buying less food but cutting out healthier produce they deemed unaffordable, the tracker found. More than half of those experiencing food insecurity said they had bought less fruit, while just under half had bought fewer vegetables.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s said a fifth of parents it surveyed had struggled to provide sufficient food for their children over the past year.

Separately, a joint statement by organisations representing more than 2,000 UK food banks said they were struggling to meet “unprecedented” demand. Many food banks were at breaking point, they said, leaving staff and volunteers “overstretched and exhausted”.

A government spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be to support the most vulnerable and we recognise that people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we are protecting millions of those most in need with at least £1,200 of direct payments.

“In addition, vulnerable families in England are being supported by the government’s Household Support Fund – which was boosted by £500m – to help pay for essentials, and latest figures show that there were 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs compared to 2019/20.”

Case study: Victoria

Breakfasts are a luxury, weekday lunches largely a thing of the past. There are no food treats any more, no desserts or cake. For Victoria, a single mother on a low income, this denial of her own food needs has one purpose: to ensure her two primary school age children never go hungry.

“I was often hungry as a child, I grew up in a low-income family, so I know what it feels like,” she says.

“I will never let that happen to my children, so they will never skip meals. I’m trying to minimise the effect of poverty on them.”

Family meals are an elaborate act, where she makes sure they eat normally while distracting them from noticing she is barely eating at all. Breakfast is a cup of tea for her, at most a slice of toast. She regularly skips lunch when they are at school.

In the evening they eat together – normally a hot, nutritious home-cooked dish like spaghetti bolognese or chilli con carne. Even then she holds back. “I will have a bit of what they are eating,” Victoria says.

She pays the price for skipping meals with her health. “Most people don’t know what hunger is. They think: ‘Oh, it’s easy not having the odd meal.’ They don’t know about the hollow feeling in your tummy, the aches and pains in your joints, the mental fog, the sense your forehead is going to implode.”

It is harder to sleep, harder to get out of bed in the morning, she says; your energy levels dip, you become obsessively fixated on food. “The hungrier you are, the more you think about it. There are times when I would do anything – anything – for a meal.”

If affects her mental health, she admits. There are a handful of emergency meals in the freezer, to be drawn on when things become too much, when the pain and the strain of hunger becomes too much.

Her food budgeting is forensic and precise, while her own food intake is highly regulated, a commodity she readily trades to pay for things like her children’s after-school clubs. “I’ve got to buy new shoes for the kids soon. So I think: ‘How many meals do I have to skip to afford that?’”

For Victoria, who is participating in Changing Realities, an academic project documenting life on a low income, and for many parents she knows, food insecurity is about setting their needs aside for the sake of their children. “I trade my health for my kids’ welfare,” she says.

• This article was amended on 21 October 2022. An earlier version mistakenly referred to nearly one in five “low-income families” experiencing food insecurity in September; the figure covers all UK families.


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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