Young people in food poverty: a lost generation?

Young people growing up in poverty in the UK are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation’. While the term ‘generation’ has several meanings, Mannheim’s concept of generation is helpful in understanding the effects of historical context and global events on young people during their formative years. During this pandemic young people are growing up in a period of massive material, educational, and emotional turbulence, and are facing an uncertain future. 

Vast numbers of children and young people in the UK live in low-income families, with evidence that more families have fallen into poverty since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Before the crisis, according to official statistics from 2018-19, 4.2 million young people under 18 years were living in relative poverty (in households with an income below 60% of the median), and it has been estimated that a further 200,000 children have moved into relative poverty as a result of the pandemic. Parents in low-paid work, or reliant on benefits, lack both the resources to keep their families safe, as well as provide for them. Many young people have parents who are unable to work from home, placing them at greater risk of contracting covid-19 than those who do, whilst increasing numbers of young people are suffering poor mental ill health.

Given increased living costs for low-income families with children at home in the lockdown, household food insecurity and demand for food aid have soared. Research by the Food Foundation in September 2020 found that in about 14 per cent of UK households, children and parents were unable to eat properly in the last six months because they could not afford or access food. Between February and October 2020 data from the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) show that 134 independent food banks distributed a total of 426,958 emergency food parcels, compared to 226,605 in the same period in 2019 – a rise of 88 per cent. These data represent a fraction of the food bank total – at least 961 independent food banks operate across the UK, whilst the UK’s largest food aid provider, the Trussell Trust, saw a 47 per cent increase in the number of emergency food parcels across the UK between 1 April to 30 September 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

Food banks are a lifeline in the current crisis, vitally addressing the immediate needs of a growing number of families, but they are not the solution. They cannot solve poverty or satisfy the ‘right to food’ which includes the need to protect, promote, and fulfil people’s right to acquire, through usual means, adequate, culturally appropriate food. Furthermore, international evidence shows that food banks are used by a minority of families. For example, Canadian research (2017-18) shows that around four times as many households were food insecure compared to those who use food banks. Because the cause of food insecurity is low income, food poverty can only be solved by measures that address households’ insufficient financial resources. 

In Families and Food in Hard Times: European Comparative Research we sought to understand the food practices of parents and children at risk of food poverty in the aftermath of the last major, global crisis. The research was carried out in three European countries, the UK, Portugal and Norway, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and so-called austerity measures imposed in two of the three countries. As our research testifies, those worst affected in such crises are the families and children who have the least resources. 

In the UK, the children, aged between 11 and 16 years, who took part in the study, were all living in low-income households, only a few of whom had accessed food banks. Most young people were aware of the financial and food constraints on their families, despite parents’ attempts to protect them from going without. They described experiencing hunger and social exclusion as their parents juggled insufficient money to meet their families’ material and social needs. Some denied they had experienced a lack of food, lessening their own feelings of shame, whilst others described concealing their experiences, thereby avoiding being publicly stigmatised. Others were resilient and positive, for example, defending themselves against being labelled as poor and seeing their families as better off than others. Asked who should take responsibility for ensuring children are adequately fed, they suggested that, when parents could not fulfil this duty, the government had a responsibility to act.

In marked contrast to the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, when children’s experiences were notably absent from the media coverage of rising household food insecurity, over this last year, young people have become more visible. In particular, those living in poverty are beginning to command the attention of politicians. Marcus Rashford’s story of growing up in poverty has struck a chord with the public and has reversed the government’s intransigence on the provision of free school meals in the recent school holidays. Through impactful campaigns, such as those supported by NGOs including the Child Poverty Action Group, the Food Foundation, Church Action on Poverty, Sustain and Citizens UK, spaces are being created for children and young people to tell their stories

These campaigns have had some success: for example, in securing extensions to the provision of free school meals in school holidays and – temporarily – for some children whose families have No Recourse to Public Funds. It is important to celebrate the vital work of schools and charities working tirelessly to ensure children are not going hungry in these unprecedented times. However, unless the wider causes of poverty are addressed, in the long run, food ‘solutions’ can only conserve the highly unequal status quo. As the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakraborrty puts it, citing Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, people are not ‘a ragbag of different physical needs to be met by a patchwork of largely volunteer organisations’, but ‘distinct human beings of infinite value’. Furthermore, although it is positive to see children’s experiences represented in public discussions about the impacts of covid-19 on low-income families, there is a lack of formal mechanisms for their policy participation. In this context it is hard to see how children and young people can meaningfully take part, or ‘actively participate in shaping responses’, to bring about radical social change.

The consequences of the covid-19 pandemic for young people living in low-income families in the UK, as well as the impact of Brexit, will continue to have profound effects on their health and education, as the children’s commissioner for England has noted. Only time will tell how badly the future of this generation will be marked by these events. Meanwhile, it is our duty not only to campaign on behalf of the health and welfare of young people, but to support the implementation of mechanisms that enable their participation in decisions that shape their lives. Children must be at the heart of efforts to rebuild intergenerational justice, and the country, after the Covid crisis.

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Rebecca O’Connell is Reader in the Sociology of Food and Families, and Julia Brannen is Emerita Professor of the Sociology of the Family, at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education.

Twitter: @r_oconnell and @juliabrannen

Competing interests: none declared.