Food insecurity is a major public health crisis in the UK and one with significant inequalities. In 2021 to 2022 6% of households in the UK were food insecure, with either low (3%) or very low household food security (3%) and 6% experienced marginal food insecurity. There are clear racial disparities in food insecurity.  Food insecurity was highest in households where the head of the household was Black, African, Caribbean and Black British (19%), Arab (16%), Pakistani (14%) and Bangladeshi (14%) and lowest where the head of the household was White (6%) or Indian (4%).

Racial inequalities in food insecurity are closely related to racial inequalities in income. After paying for housing costs, more than half (55%) of Bangladeshi and 47% of Pakistani households experience poverty. For Black African, Black Caribbean and Black British households, the rate is 40%. The recent increase in fuel costs is likely to have disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic households. In the two years to March 2021, an average of 12.6% of white households were experiencing fuel poverty compared to 19.1% of Black and ethnic minority households.

Racial inequalities in food insecurity are closely but not entirely related to differences in economic resources, they are also connected to racial discrimination which may limit access to health services, social security, and charitable support. As I have written about elsewhere, black and minority ethnic people can experience particular structural barriers to accessing food charity in the UK. Food banks and food pantries are often advertised online or in English only and access can be dependent upon referral from another organisation, such as health services or welfare rights advisors which may themselves be inaccessible. Once access has been gained, the food is often not culturally appropriate, for instance lacking halal options and containing only tins. It is also worth noting that food aid in the UK is dominated by faith-based and especially Christian organisations; accessing support from faith-based organisations may not necessarily be appropriate or comfortable for those of other faiths or no faith.

The case of those who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) status warrants particular attention. NRPF is a condition attached to ‘immigration control’ which prohibits people from accessing most state benefits and services. There are over a million people who are affected by No Recourse to Public Funds in the UK. For the past year, I have been speaking to people across the UK living on a low income about their experiences of food for a study funded by the Wellcome Trust. I have spoken to many asylum seekers who have told me of the immense hardship they experience in trying to afford food for themselves and their families. People seeking asylum in the UK usually get £47.39 for each person in the household to pay for food, clothing and toiletries. I recently spoke to Ahmed; he came to the UK from the Middle East seven months ago and currently lives in Bradford with his children, Ahmed told me:

“The money is only enough for the basic things. Very, very basic things. If we want to buy enough food this will reduce the amount for the children’s time to go to places where they can play. We tried to reduce and stop taking them to places where they play, have fun, you know, taking them out if we want enough food. Sometimes you find yourself, you need to go to food banks and to take this kind of food which you don’t like and you sometimes are forced to. It really affects our mental health and our mood.”

For asylum seekers living in temporary accommodation the food provided is often insufficient and inappropriate to cultural and dietary needs. Food banks in the Independent Food Aid Network, have observed children who have developed stomach issues after weeks of eating consistently low quality food and others have seen people coming to them after Home Office contractors would not meet dietary requirements. Speaking to Julia, an asylum seeker in temporary accommodation in London I was told:

“Honestly the food is worse, it was horrible. At the beginning it was really difficult and I had to eat it anyway because I needed to show to my daughter that I was eating so in that way she can eat it. But otherwise it was really bad. And then after that they change the food but it was just pasta and the doctors told me that I needed to change for something else because I was getting ill. And basically now our meals are based on pasta, potatoes, mashed potatoes, rice and spaghetti, and meat.”

It is clear that change is urgently needed. First, food insecurity for all ethnic groups and particularly so for black and minority ethnic people is a consequence of poverty and necessitates income-based solutions. At a minimum, the two child-limit and the benefit cap must be removed but in the long-term we need real sustained investment in our social security system so that families receive consistent and adequate incomes.

Second, to tackle food insecurity among asylum seekers, it is essential to remove No Recourse to Public Funds status, end the use of hotels as temporary accommodation and house people seeking asylum in safe and dignified housing with access to kitchens.

Third, the need for food aid is primarily driven by poverty and not poor access to food. Food banks and other food aid organisations do not have the resources or the expertise to provide nutritious culturally appropriate food which adequately meets individual dietary needs. Going to a food bank can also be an immensely shameful experience. The Westminster government should follow the Scottish government in adopting a human rights approach to tackling food insecurity promoting principles of dignity and cash-first to reduce the need for emergency food parcels and expanding advice and support to address the causes of food insecurity.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, it is critical to democratise conversations on food inequalities and food charity by meaningfully engaging with the expertise that comes from direct experience of poverty and food insecurity in order to understand what isn’t working and what needs to change.

In any discussion of inequalities, we must consider who is winning from the status quo as well as who is losing out; in this case this means interrogating how whiteness and white power shape inequalities and lived experiences.

Maddy Power is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow/Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York. Maddy works in participatory ways with national and local government, civil society organisations, community groups and other academics on policy topics relating to healthy sustainable livelihoods and inequality. She is the author of Hunger, Whiteness and Religion in Neoliberal Britain: An Inequality of Power (Policy Press, 2022) and A Year Like No Other: Life on a low income during Covid-19 (Policy Press, 2022) (with Ruth Patrick and colleagues).