The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated food insecurity among young people

New research by Dr Charlotte McPherson for I-SPHERE and Oak Foundation, reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic has both worsened and laid bare young people’s enhanced risks of experiencing food insecurity.

The majority of research, policy and media coverage of food insecurity has focused on young children and families, and very little is known about how it affects young adults. Ingrained assumptions about young people’s ability to rely on financial support from their parents combined with their underrepresentation among food bank users has contributed to youth food insecurity flying under the radar in the UK. The report explores how food insecurity affected a diverse group of 13 young people, aged 18-26, living in Edinburgh and London, before and during the pandemic.

Drivers of food insecurity and the impact of Covid-19

Food insecurity among young people is fundamentally triggered by low income, but is sharpened by more distinctive factors associated with being young, including residing in shared living environments and leaving the family home for the first time:

I feel like it was fine when I was working and living at home, but then it got really downhill when I moved to supported accommodation – Stacey, 20, London

The research found that Covid-19 and subsequently instated policy measures played a significant role in the young people’s food insecurity. Some had been laid off and others were unsure if they had jobs to return to post-lockdown. Those that had been placed on furlough from their jobs had been furloughed to the monetary value of their contracted hours; a number much lower than the number of hours that they typically actually worked. This was creating substantial drops in their income and triggering pronounced food insecurity:

I was literally working six days a week, ten hours a day. I was so used to just grafting. Now I’m just, like, not doing anything. The money I’m getting, it’s not even what I was getting in a week… It’s horrible – Holly, 18, London

Students were unable to access overtime in their part-time or zero-hours contract jobs as they normally would over the summer period, were months away from their next student loan payment in Autumn, and, as full-time students, were ineligible for Universal Credit. As a result, they were falling through cracks between the two key policy provisions during the pandemic, and were navigating substantially reduced incomes:

I applied for benefits, but they told me because I’m about to enter my fourth year of a four-year degree, because I’m still in full-time education, I don’t qualify for Universal Credit. My furlough pay is 80 per cent of ten hours… which is absolutely nothing – Alex, 22, Edinburgh

Impacts of youth food insecurity

Food insecurity has significant impacts on young people’s health and wellbeing. They drew direct links between being hungry and elevated stress levels, depression and low mood, as well as feeling chronically exhausted and physically run down. The impact of food insecurity was particularly stark among young people with pre-existing health problems, for whom a lack of money for food posed dangerous health risks:

As somebody with a history of having an eating disorder… it is quite hard for me to prioritise feeding myself… Not being able to buy the kinds of food that I consider to be safe for me to eat all the time, and my comfortable foods, if I don’t have the money to buy them, I will eat less – Sasha, 21, Edinburgh

Strategies and coping

Young people draw from a range of sophisticated strategies to navigate their food insecurity that are consistent with living with poverty over a number of years, including shopping in cheap food outlets for cheap foods, reducing portion sizes and skipping meals, seeking ad-hoc earning and eating opportunities, and strict, careful budgeting. Being independent and self-sufficient was extremely important to the young people, who struggled to seek or accept support from others:

I’ve got kind of a lot of pride, so I don’t really like asking for help… I’d rather see what I can really get done on my own… rather than just asking for help… I was raised a certain way. You don’t really ask anybody for nothing – Holly, 18, London

Young people also found it hard asking for help from friends and family because of strained relationships or because their relatives and friends were struggling themselves.

Food banks

Young people found using food banks stigmatising given their strong desire to be independent. They often felt undeserving of such support, and ashamed when they had no other option but to use food banks:

Honestly, I feel like, with every time that I need it, I just felt like I hadn’t done enough… When you’ve got folks in their 40s, their 50s, and they’re sitting there getting the same food as you, it’s like, no, surely to god, surely to god there’s something else that I can do so this can be left for other folks, other folks who need it more – Leo, 22, Edinburgh

There were also practical barriers to accessing formal support for some of the young people, who did not know how or where to access food banks or if they were eligible to use them. As a result, the young people in this study avoided and underused both informal and formal support and typically tried to cope with their food insecurity on their own.

Policy responses and problems

Young people’s overrepresentation in poorly paid, insecure jobs and their entitlement to fewer social security protections not only means that the two key policies introduced by the government to protect people from falling into poverty under Covid-19 – furloughing and Universal Credit – are applying to, and being experienced differently by, young people, but also signifies that young people’s lives are disproportionately underpinned with precariousness.

This means young people are especially exposed to harm when a crisis like Covid-19 strikes. If food insecurity among young people is to be meaningfully addressed in the short- and long-term, a strong national policy response that acknowledges its entanglement with enduring structural discriminations against young people in the UK is required. Recommendations for specific actions on the part of the UK government, devolved governments, youth organisations, food bank providers, universities and the National Union of Students are detailed in the report.


Read the full report: Young people, food insecurity and Covid19

Summary report:  Young people, food insecurity and Covid 19 Summary pdf