A new survey from charity the Food Foundation has shown key workers are struggling to afford basic food items amid the cost of living crisis.
Its poll of 10,814 UK adults, which was conducted by YouGov between 31 January 2023 and 3 February 2023, showed a quarter of households containing NHS and social care workers, and another fifth of homes containing people who work in the education system, were experiencing food insecurity.
Both sectors have been embroiled in pay disputes with the government, with their respective unions having undertaken several days of strike action in recent months as a result. The government has reached pay deals with some unions, but industrial action is continuing for members of others.
It all comes after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest inflation figures on Wednesday (22 March). These showed the UK rate of price rises had risen unexpectedly to 10.4% in February 2023.
Food prices have been leading the inflation rate over the past 12 months, with prices being forced up due to several impacts from the Russia-Ukraine war, including high energy costs and a lack of availability of key ingredients, like sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. The specific February rise in food inflation may have been caused by the shortages of several key foods in supermarkets, the ONS has said.
In the face of this troubling picture, food bank usage has soared in the UK. But some government figures have downplayed the issue, with Conservative Party deputy chairperson Lee Anderson claiming it is because people “cannot budget” or cook for themselves “properly”.
Work ‘not necessarily sufficient’ to stop food insecurity
The Food Foundation’s research into household food insecurity has found the issue is “highly prevalent in the UK”. It added that wages and benefits are “simply not providing enough to live on”. The charity defines food insecurity as being hungry but not eating due to being unable to afford or get access to food.
One of its survey’s more concerning statistics showed employment status had little bearing on food insecurity. Out of all the households it found to be food insecure, 38.6% were in some form of employment. When it looked at key sectors, including the NHS, food and education, it found large numbers of workers from them were in food insecure homes.
Almost a quarter (24.9%) of homes containing at least one NHS and social care worker were experiencing food insecurity at the time of the poll. For nurses, the figure was 26.1%, while for those working in social care it was 27.9%. It comes after NationalWorld found 11 NHS Trusts in England have opened food banks for staff.
In households containing food sector workers - a group including people who work in supermarkets - the figure was 25.8%. And for education workers, it was 21.1%. Just over a fifth (21%) of homes occupied by at least one teaching assistant, and 17.8% of properties with at least one teacher living in them were deemed to be food insecure. The average rate for households with workers from other sectors was almost 18%.
For households made up of at least one person receiving Universal Credit, many of whom are in or seeking work, the rate of food insecurity was 49%. It comes as the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a crackdown on benefits claimants who fail to take up “reasonable” job offers in his Spring Budget.
What has the Food Foundation said?
Reacting to the findings of its survey, the Food Foundation urged the government to uprate benefits and the minimum wage so they are at a level that “take into account what is required for families to afford a healthy diet”.
The charity’s executive director Anna Taylor said: “Struggling to afford food is by no means confined to those out of work. Many people doing important jobs are also suffering the stress and indignity of not knowing if their pay cheque will allow them to buy the bare essentials.
“Businesses must pull out all the stops to help their lower paid staff and the government needs to seriously scrutinise why their policies are failing to protect struggling families from affording the basics and start setting some targets for reducing food insecurity levels, particularly amongst benefit claimants.”
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures of the rising cost of living, which is why we delivered £1,200 of direct payments to millions of households last year and will be providing a further £1,350 of support to the most vulnerable households in 2023-24. This is on top of an increase in benefits of 10.1% next month.
“In his recent Budget, the Chancellor announced an ambitious package to support Universal Credit claimants to move into work and increase their earnings, and as part of our commitment to make sure work pays, we will make the largest ever cash increase to the National Living Wage, with a full-time worker over the age of 23 seeing their annual earnings rise by over £1,600. We have also reached an agreement with health unions to offer more than a million NHS workers an additional pay rise.”