Informing the Hertfordshire Food Poverty Needs Assessment: Household Experiences of Food Poverty and Support Service Provision in Hertfordshire
Although the proportion of residents at a higher risk of experiencing food poverty in Hertfordshire is below the national average (15.8%), 10.3 per cent of residents are still at a high risk. ‘Food poverty’ is a visible symptom and consequence of poverty. The aim of this research is to contribute an understanding of residents’ experiences of food poverty, their experiences of accessing support services and to determine what gaps there are in service provision in Hertfordshire. This research was undertaken to inform the Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) ‘Food Poverty Needs Assessment’ being undertaken to inform policy and practice across Hertfordshire (HCC, 2021). Although this work is not directly exploring the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of people experiencing food poverty in the UK has increased since its onset, so this work is timely. Twenty-three Hertfordshire residents completed a survey and five residents took part in an in-depth semi-structured interview. Three focus groups were undertaken with 15 service providers from organisations providing support for those experiencing food poverty across Hertfordshire. Residents identified multiple factors that contributed to their experience of food poverty, including physical and/or mental health issues, the high cost of housing, unemployment or furlough during the pandemic, low pay and/or insecure work, debt and Universal Credit. These factors were often cumulative. Households described how they used numerous strategies in response and often prioritised paying housing costs and household utilities. Food budgets were then determined by the little money left over. Other strategies included exhaustive budgeting, pre-planning purchases and meals, shopping in multiple outlets and using cheaper ‘budget’ supermarkets. For households with children, parents sometimes skipped meals and/or bought cheaper poorer quality food (or ‘junk food’) to ensure that their children were not hungry. Informal social networks (such as family and friends) provided financial and practical support including childcare. Formal support included food aid from food banks as well as guidance and advice from services such as Herts Help, Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Unit. Free school meals were also seen as vital to families with children. Residents were largely positive about their experiences of accessing support services. However, they often struggled to know what support was available to them or how to access support in the first instance. They recommended better availability of information about what support is available and that this information should not just be accessible via the internet. Focus groups suggested that the root cause of food poverty was poverty itself, caused by insufficient income. They stated that local responses to the complexities of food poverty should be multiagency and there were good examples of existing partnership working between organisations. Service providers explained how the demand for services had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic with food banks noting changes in the demographic profile of service users. There was consensus that a countywide response to food poverty in Hertfordshire should be informed by public health approaches that prioritise prevention. There was widespread agreement for the need to map the existing services operating across Hertfordshire to identify gaps in provision and ensure residents are able to access the most appropriate support available to them and that organisations can work collaboratively as efficiently as possible. Service providers also recommended a need for strategic leadership, establishment of outcomes and priority setting for food poverty work across Hertfordshire.