New data shows the number of people going without food has increased by 100% since before the pandemic, with health outcomes for the poorest households worsening

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The number of single parent families who are severely food insecure has doubled since 2019/20, according to new research published this week.

Single parent families who can’t afford food essentials has increased from 9% to 18%, while nearly a quarter of people (23%) receiving means-tested or disability benefits are severely food insecure this winter, up from 4% pre-pandemic. 

Little wonder then that one in three of the UK’s poorest families say their health has been impacted by the cost of living crisis, compared to only one in five of their richer peers.

A report into living standards published by the Resolution Foundation think tank found that 34% of the poorest people in society had been told by a health professional that their overall health had been negatively affected by the crisis. In contrast, only 14% of the richest households had been warned by doctors about the impact on their health.


Hunger and Heating

Food insecurity is a major impact on health, with the rates of people going without food because they simply can’t afford to eat more than doubling since 2019.

In 2019/20, 5% of people responded to the Resolution Foundation’s living standards survey to say that, in the past 30 days, they were hungry but went without food due to money worries. Today, that figure is 11%, or just over one in 10. 

28% responded to say they could not afford basic meals – an increase from 9% in 2019/20, while nearly one in five (18%) of people said they skipped three meals because they could not afford to eat. This was up from 4% in 2019/20. 

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Being unable to eat a healthy and balanced diet has an impact on both physical and mental health, with families going without fresh fruit and vegetables or able to afford diets that meet specific health needs. Food insecurity is linked to poor concentration, tiredness, and mental distress. 

Families are also increasingly having to choose between heating and eating, with 38% of the poorest households unable to turn on the heating when needed. Nearly half (45%) of people in social housing cannot afford to turn their heating on – this is more than double the number of people who own a property outright.

Living in cold homes is linked to poor mental health outcomes in children – more than one in four teenagers living in cold houses are at risk of experiencing multiple mental health problems. This compares to one in 20 adolescents who have always lived in warm housing. Cold homes are also linked to physical health issues in children including respiratory diseases. 

“The cost of living crisis is causing immediate damage to the nation’s health with higher food insecurity, people under strain as they fall behind with bills and increased prevalence of emotional distress,” said Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation.


The Emotional Cost

Nearly two-thirds (60%) of the poorest households were found to be experiencing emotional distress as a result of rising costs and squeezed incomes, compared to 36% of the highest earners. 

Black and ethnic minority people were more likely to report experiencing emotional distress linked to the cost of living crisis, with black and mixed-race people’s levels of emotional distress rising from 35% and 40% to 50% and 58% respectively since the end of 2021. More than half of the UK’s black children are growing up in poverty. 

How a Cost of Living CrisisFuels a Healthcare Crisis

Sian Norris

People receiving state benefits – excluding child benefit or the state pension – were also more likely to be experiencing declining mental wellbeing during the crisis. 64% of respondents on state benefits said they were experiencing emotional distress as a result of the crisis, compared to 42% for those who do not receive any benefits. 

“Britain is only at the mid-point of a two-year income squeeze, which is set to leave typical families £2,100 worse off,” said Lalitha Try, researcher at the Resolution Foundation.

“Low-income families have been hit hardest by soaring energy bills and food prices, and are most likely to have seen both their financial circumstances and their health deteriorate. The Government has rightly prioritised them in its crisis response – with support targeted at vulnerable households and tax rises hitting better-off families.”

Poor health outcomes as a result of the cost of living crisis are piling pressure on the NHS, which is already struggling to meet the winter demand fuelled by COVID-19, seasonal flu and a Strep A outbreak – as well as the legacy of pre-pandemic waiting lists and under-funding. 

Data from the Kings Fund published in 2021 found that, in the most deprived quintile, 7.3% of patients had been waiting more than 52 weeks for NHS treatment, compared to 4% in the least deprived quintile. This was 1.8 times higher.

People in the most deprived areas are also more likely to go to A&E departments because they have “nowhere else to turn”, according to the Red Cross.

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