During Malnutrition Awareness Week, we’re shifting our focus onto access to food and nutrition in the UK. Food insecurity has been heightened by the impact of COVID-19 . In this article, we look at examples of local initiatives and organisations pulling out all the stops to ensure people at risk of food insecurity are getting what they need during the pandemic and beyond.
Food insecurity, defined as a lack of ‘regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life’, has been on the rise over recent years.¹,² The economic impact of COVID-19 has seen the number of people who are food insecure in the UK rise to over five million.³ Age UK report that 1.4 million older people (≥60 years) in England have been eating less since the start of the pandemic and could therefore be at a greater risk of malnutrition.⁴ The factors contributing to food insecurity are largely related to low income, coupled with rising living costs and cuts to funding for local social care services.⁵
The pandemic brought further challenges for older adults when it comes to accessing food and nutrition. Age UK reported that nearly half (49%) of older adults surveyed said that it had become even harder to shop for food because of the pandemic. For example, forty-three percent of older people now feel less confident in going to the shops by themselves than they used to.⁴ Additionally, heightened anxiety due to the pandemic has led to mood changes and supressed appetites in many older adults, further increasing their risk of malnutrition.⁴
Shielding restrictions during the pandemic also meant that older adults had reduced contact with family, friends, carers, and healthcare professionals. This reduced face-to-face contact will have inevitably meant that some older adults have slipped through the net with regards to detecting malnutrition.
Government funding cuts have unfortunately led to the closure of many community-based public health services that previously would have supported those facing food insecurity. As a result, many charitable organisations have implemented measures to ensure that people are able to access food throughout the pandemic. To help spread the word, we’ve rounded up a summary of a few initiatives tackling food insecurity, most of which are dependent on volunteers.
Meal Makers is a voluntary organisation and social enterprise which is part of the Food Train charity. It provides vital services to those who are struggling to manage independently due to age, frailty or disability. Meal Makers is a local food-sharing project that connects people who can share an extra portion of a home-cooked meal with an older neighbour who would benefit from a hot meal and a friendly chat. It strengthens connections within communities, whilst providing a solution that helps older people to eat well and age well in their homes.
The Trussell Trust is a nationwide network of community led food banks which provide emergency food support. Food is donated at a local level and sorted into a three-day package which provides ingredients for nutritionally balanced meals for a family. Healthcare professionals and teachers can refer families in need to the food banks. Volunteers are also on hand to provide practical support to help tackle the root cause of food poverty.
This community initiative in Sheffield reduces waste by upcycling food and turning it into nourishing and healthy meals for families in need of support. It is reliant on businesses donating surplus food and volunteers preparing the meals. Their chefs and volunteers cook and bake everything from scratch with zero food waste. The organisation aims to provide access to nutritious food across the city.
As well as these fantastic charities, AYMES have developed a handy factsheet to help support families during the pandemic. Here we have outlined simple ways to eat well on a budget, which can be downloaded here.
Nutrition professionals play a crucial role in educating and providing vulnerable groups with nutritional knowledge and skills. There is little benefit in creating nutritional treatment plans if patients are unable to access food. As part of their nutritional assessment, dietitians should incorporate questions relating to food access and be on hand to signpost local food support charities as required. Dietitians can also help to lobby commissioners to fund public health campaigns that are in desperate need of support.³
Local healthcare professionals can refer individuals to a social prescriber, a role recently commissioned by the NHS. Social prescribers take a holistic approach to an individual's health and wellbeing by connecting them to community groups for practical and emotional support. Additionally, social prescribers aim to support existing community groups (such as those tackling food insecurity) making them as accessible and sustainable as possible, to reach greater numbers of people in need.⁹