Let’s talk about food security

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought social and economic consequences that have particularly hit low-income households. Approximately 4.9 million adults and 1.7 million children are currently food insecure in the UK – this means that the levels of food insecurity have risen by about 250% since prior the first lockdown1

Many organisations, individuals and communities have come together to support those in need by preparing meals, organising food parcels and raising money. These communal efforts have helped many and have raised awareness on food insecurity as a national (and global) social justice issue that needs to be fixed

What do we mean by “food security”?

Having enough food to eat is not being food secure. People may have enough food to survive but the quality, quantity and availability of the food may not support their health. Food insecurity is more than just a lack of food

Food security is complex and has been defined in many ways. At the World Food Summit, it was described as a condition that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for and active and healthy life”

What are the causes of food insecurity?

There are many causes of food insecurity, such as poor mental health, unemployment, and benefit delays. These situations often occur suddenly and outwith a person’s control

It can go unnoticed due to the fact people often adopt copying mechanisms before they ask for help, often due to the stigma attached to being food insecure. Examples of copying mechanisms may include reducing number of meals, restricting portion sizes, reducing food variety

According to the FAO when we speak about food insecurity, there are four aspects to consider:

  • Availability

The variety and quantity of foods available in the local area. A varied diet is important to ensure that the body gets all the macronutrients and micronutrients necessary for normal growth and development. Availability also involves being able to access food required for dietary needs and culturally appropriated to the individual. This can be a barrier for people living in suburbs or in rural areas, where there are few (if any) shops selling good-quality food at an affordable price and fast-food outlets are cheaper and easily accessible – these areas are called “food deserts”

  • Access

When the local area does not have many food shops at walking distance, people need to travel to buy food items. Lack of a vehicle can increase barriers for people who either have to pay for a taxi/public transport or have to take a long walk to and from the shop, bearing the weight of food bags. This can be particularly hard for households with children, elderly people, people with mobility issues and people with mental health issues

  • Utilisation

The way people shop and cook is dependent on a variety of factors such as; knowledge, skills, storage facilities, cooking equipment, time, physical and mental health. Having limited knowledge, time or access to cooking equipment can impact on an individual’s ability to make healthier choices, preventing them from choosing, preparing and cooking healthy food. Barriers such as these can make it more likely that certain groups will rely on takeaways and ready meals, which can be expensive and impact on health in the long-termWhat actions have been taken to tackle food insecurity?

  • Stability

Having a stable income that can provide for the household is essential to ensure food affordability. Unemployability, zero-hours contracts or frozen benefits are just a few examples of reasons that can drastically change an individual’s ability to afford food

What actions have been taken to tackle food insecurity?

Pre-pandemic, 9% of adults in Scotland were food insecure2 and evidence shows that this number was already on a rise in the UK3. The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted the issue and mobilised public opinion and actions to try to minimise the issue.

The Scottish Government has committed to address food insecurity with the human right’s approach to food. To move away from considering food a commodity means that everyone, regardless their financial conditions, has access to nutritious and affordable food. To achieve this, the Scottish Government has taken actions to:

  1. Support a fair start of life for all children, by offering financial support to low-income families (e.g. Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods Grant) and by providing free school meals
  2. Improve and maximise incomes (e.g. real Living Wage and tackling the gender pay gap)
  3. Reduce the need for emergency food aid (e.g. food banks) by promoting more dignified and respectful approaches to access food (e.g. “Cash First” and “Fair Food Fund”)

Useful links

Citizens Advice Scotland – Food banks and other crisis help

Hubbub – Community Fridges | Hubbub Foundation


  1. Food Foundation (May 2020) NEW FOOD FOUNDATION DATA: food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown
  2. Scottish Government (Sept 2020) Scottish Health Survey 2019: summary report
  3. Loopstra et al. (2019) The rise of hunger among low-income households: an analysis of the risks of food insecurity between 2004 and 2016 in a population-based study of UK adults. BMJ.com
  4. Scottish Government (Sept 2021) Food insecurity and poverty – United Nations: Scottish Government response – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013) The State of Food Insecurity in the World

Author: Valeria Folco, ANutr


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