Food poverty set to worsen as September’s Universal Credit cliff edge approaches

Food banks are trying to prepare for what looks set to be a busy and difficult winter, says Sabine Goodwin

Independent food banks have come to expect a busy August as the UK’s social security safety net continues to be eroded. As parents try to find ways of scraping together the cost of new school uniforms and taking care of their children through the school summer holidays, money for food runs dry. But this summer is different—there is a sense of foreboding among members of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). 

A perfect storm is brewing—the impending overnight cut to Universal Credit, the end of the furlough scheme, and a dramatic increase in energy prices. All these devastating changes are planned for the start of October. 

Despite the efforts of IFAN, and many other charities, to campaign for a cash first approach to food insecurity and to urge the UK Government to address the root causes of food poverty, matters are about to get much worse. Food banks are trying to prepare as best they can for what looks set to be the busiest and most difficult winter on record. 

Charitable food aid providers have been responding to the impact of poverty-inducing policies for over a decade. Since the start of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, they’ve supported yet more people unable to afford food with ever-increasing numbers of emergency food parcels. 2.1 million people on legacy benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have not received the £20 uplift, and the impact, not surprisingly, has been an increasing need for emergency food aid

Food bank teams, so often comprising of volunteers, are trying to make sense of yet another policy decision that will unquestionably exacerbate poverty and food insecurity. As Joyce Leggate of Kirkcaldy Foodbank put it: “Very few of our clients are able to withstand any reduction in their benefit level, never mind this savage cut as winter is approaching and household bills will rise again. As a food bank, we do not know if and how we will be able to provide the support that will inevitably be needed.”

In March 2021, the Department of Work and Pensions published food insecurity data for the first time. The Family Resources Survey found that between April 2019 and March 2020, 8% of UK households were food insecure. However, that figure increased to 43% for households relying on the pre-pandemic rate of Universal Credit. The Government’s own data reveal that the £20 increase to Universal Credit payments was essential.

Between March 2020 and July 2021, 5.3 million people have claimed Universal Credit. Currently just under six million are dependent on this social security payment, double the figure for March 2020. The scale of the disaster about to unfold cannot be overestimated. 

Lucy Bannister of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Keep The Lifeline campaign explains, “In October, six million families will face the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War II. This will pull half a million more people into poverty and increase hardship for many more, with far-reaching consequences for the health and stability of families around the UK.”

These far-reaching consequences are well known to food bank managers like Alison Peyton of Readifood: “Having to buy lower quality and cheaper food impacts on the nutritional value of any meals. This in itself can have a long term impact on families’ health. But it is the less obvious impact on mental health that also has destructive consequences—the constant worrying if you have enough money to get basic food for your family, skipping meals, having your children missing out on treats, eating smaller portions, and living with a lack of choice.” The impact of the pandemic on pre-existing health inequalities is already widely recognised. The cut to Universal Credit will inevitably deepen health inequalities, yet further. 

While Marcus Rashford’s call for increased uptake of healthy start vouchers is most welcome, as well as the recommendations put forward by the National Food Strategy, these measures are gap-filling interventions which won’t scratch the surface of what’s driving food poverty. It’s poverty that is at the heart of the ever-worsening food insecurity crisis and only bold actions that increase people’s incomes will make the difference that counts. 

IFAN envisions a society without the need for charitable food aid and is calling for an adequate social security system, as well as fair wages and job security. We believe that a Living Income is essential so that each of us is guaranteed an adequate standard of living and is able to afford healthy and nutritious food. However, first and foremost, the devastating cut to Universal Credit planned for 6 October simply cannot happen. 

Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.

Competing interests: none declared. 

BMJ readers raised more than £60,000 on behalf of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) during the recent BMJ Annual Appeal. IFAN supports, connects and advocates on behalf of a range of food aid providers including over 500 independent food banks. BMJ readers’ donations went directly to frontline member organisations and also supported IFAN’s work to co-develop cash first referral leaflets to help reduce the need for emergency food aid.