Millions more people in the UK too hard up to afford to buy sufficient food were forced to skip meals or go the whole day without eating in recent months, data shows.
As the cost of living crisis deepened, nearly one in five low-income 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 pupils stealing food from classmates, skipping lunch because they could not afford school meals, or bringing in packed lunches containing just a 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 said it would have damaging health consequences for the worst off, including increased prevalence 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, more than two-thirds were referring parents to food banks, and just under half 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.”
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 food 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 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 that food insecurity rates dropped and stabilised at between 7% and 8% after the government introduced Covid support for struggling families 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, have precipitated a sharp rise in hunger. Despite the 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 said they 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.
A government spokesperson said: “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.”