What's a 'Food Desert' — and Why Are Over 10 Million Britons Living in Them?
It’s an issue that’s causing health and finance problems for families across the UK.
There are a lot of reasons why someone in Britain might not be eating healthily — you might not know how, for example, or you might not be able to afford to.
Now, a new report has been published that claims a lack of big supermarkets and poor public transport is leaving some Britons living in what’s known as “food deserts" — and preventing them from accessing healthy foods.
In fact, according to the report by the Social Market Foundation think tank and food company Kellogg’s, some 10.2 million people in the UK are living in these food deserts, also known as “food swamps.”
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Officially, food deserts are defined by the report as being areas where between 5,000 and 15,000 people are served by two or fewer supermarkets. That’s compared to a “normal” area, where there are up to seven stores for that number of people.
“Everyday food insecurity is on the rise in neighbourhoods across the UK,” said Megan Blake, a food security expert at the University of Sheffield, reported the Guardian. “For those living in a food desert this can mean having to dedicate a portion of an already stretched budget toward transportation costs in order to secure food.”
Almost one in 10 of the most deprived areas in the country are food deserts — with about 1.2 million people living in these areas in Britain. Generally, they are reportedly out-of-town housing estates or inner-city wards.
The specific food deserts noted in the report included Marsh Farm estate in Luton, the Southampton Way estate in South London, the Trowbridge areas of Cardiff, and Swarcliffe in Leeds. And in Scotland, estates such as Easterhouse in Glasgow.
In fact, of Scotland’s 10 most deprived food deserts, eight are in Glasgow, according to the Guardian. In Wales, three of the nine most deprived areas are in Cardiff.
According to the report, households in Britain spend about £1 in every £10 on food. For the poorest 10% of households, however, food accounts for about 15% of all spending and takes up about a fifth of a household’s disposable income.
Not having access to a larger supermarket — and instead having to rely on smaller convenience stores — can make this financial strain even worse, with many smaller stores charging higher prices compared to larger stores.
In 2017, consumer watchdog Which? conducted research that compared the cost of a basket of goods in different stores across London. It found that, for example, Tesco Metro was 7% more expensive that Tesco, while Sainsbury’s Local was 5% more than Sainsbury’s.
So when people don’t have the access to supermarkets that sell fresh produce at a reasonable price, what do they do instead?
For households with an income of £10,000 or less, according to the report, 34% bought cheaper and less healthy food to get over the strain that grocery shopping puts on their budget.
Some 10% of people said they had to cut back on the amount they were eating, so that others in their family — children, for example — could eat. For households with an income of £10,000 or less, that rose to 14% of people.
“We are determined to support households to eat healthily,” said a government spokesperson. “We support 1.1 million children with free school meals and 300,000 pregnant women, families, and children under four with Healthy Start vouchers for free fruit, vegetables, and milk.”
“We are also investing £15 million to increase the amount of surplus food from retailers and manufacturers redistributed to charities and community groups every year,” they added.