This claim is unsubstantiated. The research behind the News Letter headline was conducted across the UK and the results were not broken down by region, so this UK finding cannot be applied to Northern Ireland without further area-specific evidence.

A headline in a News Letter article published on Tuesday, 23 June 2020, on page 11 of the newspaper and online, claimed that “One in in [sic] four NI adults ‘now at risk of hunger and malnutrition’”.

The sub-headline underneath elaborated: “One in four adults across NI have struggled to access affordable food under lockdown and are now susceptible to hunger and malnutrition, a UK-wide survey has found.”
The newspaper article explained:

“The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the food security of 25% of the population was determined in research from the charity Feeding Britain and Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab. The research, which included people in NI, also found that one in four adults who look after children have eaten less so they can feed the children in their household.”

Who produced the research?

The News Letter article was based on a short report (press release) by food poverty charity Feeding Britain and Northumbria University’s Healthy Living Lab.

What is food security?

The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security uses these working definitions:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern.

Food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food as defined above.

The continuum of food security and insecurity is usually broken into four categories:

  • High food security: Households had no problems, or anxiety about, consistently accessing adequate food.
  • Marginal food security: Households had problems at times, or anxiety about, accessing adequate food, but the quality, variety, and quantity of their food intake were not substantially reduced.
  • Low food security: Households reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted.
  • Very low food security: At times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

Households with high or marginal food security are often defined as ‘food secure’ while those with low or very low food security are deemed to be ‘food insecure’. Another common grouping uses ‘marginal food insecurity’ to encompass households whose food security is ‘marginal’, ‘low’ or ‘very low’.

What did this research find?

Food security responses were broken down as follows:

  • 71.41% of adults reported living in a household with high food security, where they have no problem or limitation in accessing the food they need in sufficient quantity and quality.
  • 9.36% of adults reported living in a household with marginal food security, where they are experiencing a shortage of food in the house and/or anxious about their ongoing ability to access and afford the food they need in sufficient quantity and quality.
  • 8.50% of adults reported living in a household with low food security, where they are having to reduce the quantity and quality of their food, and consume meals which are mostly lacking in nutritional value and variety.
  • 7.67% of adults reported living in a household with very low food security, where they frequently need to reduce their food intake, are hungry, or regularly go without food for long periods of time.
  • 3.09% of respondents did not provide one of the above answers.

Adding together the marginal, low and very low answers gives the result that 25.53% (one in four) of the adults surveyed across the UK did not have high food security.

The researchers concluded that these adults “have struggled to access food they can afford. This is likely to have left them susceptible to hunger and potential malnutrition. They are living in households with, at best, moderate food security.”

Who was surveyed?

The research report states that “a national representative survey was conducted in the week commencing 8 June 2020, by Prolific, and gathered 1,004 responses. The survey contained a range of questions relating to household food security and coping strategies during the pandemic.”

One of the report’s authors confirmed to FactCheckNI that the survey results were not broken down by region, so no Northern Ireland-specific figure is available.

Other evidence about food security in Northern Ireland?

The News Letter article quoted Kevin Higgins from Advice NI, who said: “I certainly see these figures as valid for Northern Ireland …” and went on to discuss the distribution of food boxes across Northern Ireland during the coronavirus pandemic, and the rise in claims for Universal Credit.

The 2014 Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) research found that “29% of people [in Northern Ireland] have ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ skimped on food so that others in the household would have enough to eat” and “7% of households can’t afford regular fresh fruit and vegetables”.

The Food and You Survey: Northern Ireland Report (2019) for the Food Standards Agency found that one in five people in Northern Ireland (20%) lived in households with marginal, low or very low food security. The level of marginal food insecurity was mostly consistent across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Table 1.13) (charted below), and these proportions are at a similar level to those measured in a 2016 survey (Table 1.17).

The percentage of households in the 2019 study who were deemed to be food insecure (low or very low) was lower in Northern Ireland (7.8%) than England (9.9%) and Wales (10.0%).

While there is evidence that food bank usage has increased in Northern Ireland during the pandemic, there are no specific statistics to prove whether the level of marginal food insecurity has risen from one in five to one in four people.

Image: 63226160 by Ian Allenden used by license

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