Food insecurity: what can councils do?
Author: Louise Marshall, senior public health fellow, and Bethan Page, public health speciality registrar, the Health Foundation
Thriving communities need all the right building blocks in place, including quality housing, stable jobs, a good education, and much more. Erosion of these building blocks causes instability in people's lives, reducing resilience to circumstances outside their control and increasing their risk of poor health.
Good food is a fundamental building block of health, and our diets are a leading cause of poor health and health inequalities in the UK.
Affording and accessing enough nutritious food to lead a healthy life should be possible for everyone, but this is not currently the case in the UK, as highlighted by statistics published in recent weeks. The Food Foundation reported that the most deprived fifth of the population would need to spend half their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the healthy diet recommended by the government (compared with just over a tenth of disposable income for the least deprived fifth). And the Trussell Trust reported that one in seven adults in the UK – and their households – experienced food insecurity in the year to mid-2022, saying they had eaten less or skipped meals because they could not afford or access food; one in 14 households had accessed food aid, such as food banks.
Given the complex, global nature of our food system and the driving force of poverty, action is needed at national and international levels to ensure everyone has access to enough nutritious food. Alongside this, though, there is much that local government can do to support local communities to access sufficient nutritious food and to mitigate the known negative impacts of food insecurity on mental and physical health. This is the subject of a new Health Foundation briefing paper, and we summarise five key recommendations from this here.
1. Identify residents in need of support
Not all people who are food insecure access support such as food banks. Often this only happens once they feel they have exhausted support from their social networks, and many are experiencing severe social isolation. Councils are ideally placed to identify and target support to residents experiencing or at risk of food insecurity. These residents should be connected with services that can help address the causes of their food insecurity, including poverty and low income, and support to prevent or mitigate adverse impacts on their mental and physical health.
2. Build and share evidence of what works locally to prevent food insecurity
Councils already provide a broad range of support for residents experiencing poverty, including debt advice and employment services. Still, the impact of this support on household food insecurity has yet to be widely understood. Monitoring and evaluating these services should include measures of food insecurity to build the evidence base for effective local action to prevent this.
3. Maximise uptake of available national support for food insecurity
Councils should help residents to access national support that they are entitled to, including the Healthy Start scheme and free school meals.
4. Implement evidence-based interventions for residents experiencing and at risk of food insecurity
The existing evidence base points to three interventions councils can implement specifically to increase food security in those at risk of or experiencing this. These are (a) extended or universal free school meals, (b) meals on wheels, and (c) the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. However, this is not to say that these are the only effective interventions, as the evidence base about what works is limited. Councils and their partners must evaluate actions they take on food insecurity and share evidence of effectiveness.
5. Take a broader approach to local food systems
Food insecurity is a complex issue with many interrelated determinants and impacts. Councils and their partners should identify opportunities to broaden their approach to food access and availability to take account of these. There is also the opportunity to consider actions that will benefit the local economy, the environment and health in creating sustainable local food systems that support good health for all residents.
Local government has a crucial role in building healthy, thriving communities. The building blocks are interconnected; any missing or weakened threaten the whole structure. Preventing food insecurity is an important cornerstone that will help shore up the health and resilience of everyone in a community.
The following blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered professional or legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Association of Local Councils. Any links to external sources included in this blog post are provided for convenience and do not constitute endorsement or approval of those websites' content, products, services, or policies. Therefore, readers should use discretion and judgment when applying the information to their circumstances. Finally, this blog post may be updated or revised without notice.