Hunger: an ugly truth in the Covid mirror

2020 forced us to take a long hard look at ourselves — both as individuals and as a society. And one of the uglier truths this exposed was just how much hunger there is in our supposedly “developed” country.

Even prior to Covid-19, 8.4 million people in the UK were living in food poverty, which is pretty much equivalent to the population of London. Indeed in London itself, according to a 2019 survey by the Mayor of London around 1 in 5 (21%) adults in London were experiencing low or very low food security, with 1 in 6 parents (17%) reporting similar experiences for their children.*

Shocking as this may seem, it appears we didn’t really realise this in our collective conscience (otherwise surely we would’ve fixed it?). It was only once headlines emerged during the first lockdown about 1.5 million going hungry; and as the disgrace of free school meals gained momentum led by the wonderful Marcus Rashford; and as we read about Unicef for the first time in its 70-year history launching an emergency response to feed children in the UK, that we seemed to collectively wake up to this most unforgiveable of problems.

Source: @RoadsideMum on Twitter

Putting aside the woeful lack of political leadership, it seems one of the main reasons for our collective ignorance (or denial) is that we don’t actually measure food insecurity in any meaningful way — just the occasional costly, geographically limited survey here and there (although the change to the DWP annual survey is a win). Without access to consistent, up to date, national, granular data we can’t possibly know the true extent of the problem: where it’s occurring, to whom, and how it’s changing over time. I must admit to being absolutely stunned to discover this; I’d assumed it would be Government 101 to ensure that your citizens are well-fed, and if not, to measure, monitor and not sleep until they are. It appears I was wrong.

There’s an awful lot of truth to the old adage “what gets measured gets done”. And so the OLIO team have spent the past two years working with an outstanding team of data scientists and machine learning experts from Nottingham University’s N/LAB (supported by grant funding from Innovate UK), to build the world’s first national, longitudinal food insecurity database. To do so we have taken a wide variety of data sources including our own anonymised data, and harnessed cutting edge machine learning and AI to build a model that when cross referenced with the Mayor of London’s survey data has proven to be highly predictive of food insecurity, down to a street level. We believe this will be a game changing tool for Local Authorities, who have for too long been fighting this in the dark, hampered by a lack of understanding as to where exactly the problem is, and which of their efforts are succeeding.

As part of this project we conducted an eye-opening research survey which gathered 1,497 responses from a representative sample of Londoners in October & November 2020. What we discovered reinforced our fears: Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on food security. Specifically, 1 in 3 respondents (36%) reported low or very low food security, up from 21% in the Mayor’s survey in 2019. Of those who were food insecure, 60% experienced difficulty due to economic barriers e.g. loss of employment/income, delays in benefits etc; 31% due to challenges accessing food (not being able to get or pay for online deliveries); and 6% due to self-isolation.

We also saw that food insecurity hit certain demographics much harder than others. Specifically, the food insecure were more likely to:

  • Live in the most deprived areas of London (19% of the food insecure vs 12% of the food secure)
  • Be from single households (42% of single households were food insecure vs 36% of all households)
  • Be parents (43% of parents reported living in low or very low food security, while 27% also reported having children experiencing food poverty, seeming to suggest that parents are going hungry to feed their children)
  • Be shielding (13% of respondents in food insecurity reported shielding for 12 weeks, compared to only 5% of food secure respondents)
  • To have lost over half their income (27% of food insecure households had lost more than half of their income, compared to 11% of food-secure households)

What really surprised us was how few people were able to access support beyond their own immediate networks, as only 1 in 6 food insecure respondents (16%) reported getting help from food banks. Instead family ties played a critical role (30% of food insecure respondents received food support from their families vs 19% of food secure respondents), whilst neighbours also played a vital role (11% of insecure respondents received help from neighbours vs 8% of secure respondents).

Given that UK households throw away £14 billion of perfectly edible food each year, at OLIO we firmly believe there’s an *enormous* opportunity for neighbours to ensure no-one goes hungry in their local community — by giving away, rather than throwing away their spare. In parallel we will continue our work with Nottingham University to provide policymakers with the impetus, and tools, needed to make systemic changes that can hopefully remove the scourge of food insecurity from our society.

*In the Mayor of London’s 2019 survey, food insecurity was defined as where individuals compromise on the quality, quantity and variety of food (low security), or run out of food, or go without eating for days due to financial vulnerability (very low security).

Co-Founder & CEO of OLIO, the food sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.