UK Food System in a Pandemic Insight Report

This report explores key aspects of the food system: food insecurity, diet and eating habits, and food supply. 

Sector Forecast: UK Food System in a Pandemic 2020/21
Published 2021 - Report Highlights

This Insight report provides detailed snapshots of people’s experiences of the food system during the 2020/21 pandemic

This report explores several key parts of the food system: food insecurity, diet and eating habits, and food supply. In each of these areas, we have sought to build on the evidence base around how people and their behaviours have changed during the pandemic.

As a consequence, this research provides one of the most detailed snapshots of people’s experiences of the food system, from food supply to diet during the pandemic; in addition to capturing their attitudes and areas of consensus going forward.

Drawing on mixed methods, the report details the findings across four areas:
(1) A strengthened evidence base on the underlying psychology of food in the UK. This sets the scene, before exploring changes to public attitudes to food in the pandemic.
(2) Built on the understanding of food insecurity during the pandemic, the report explores the extent to which citizens have been involved in tackling new forms of food insecurity. In addition, the findings sought to better understand the public’s attitudes towards the future role of government, communities, individuals and businesses in tackling food insecurity.

(3) The report looks at eating habits and healthy eating, considering how restrictions such as working from home and staying at home might have changed people’s habits and how these might then have impacted their diet and health. Similar to our questions for the future of food insecurity, the report considers public preferences about the future of food policy in this area and how these interact with wider views about the
role of government, business, communities and individuals.
(4) The report also highlights the extent to which people have shopped more locally during the pandemic and their desire to become more self-sufficient as a nation after the pandemic.

Key findings from the report:
The psychology of food in the UK
A. People in the UK tend to have positive attitudes towards food. When asked people (in the poll of 10,000 UK adults) what they think of when they think about food, the stats show that people are most likely to think of positive things:
• 64% said a source of comfort.
• 62% said family time.
• 51% said a luxury to treat yourself.
• 47% said time with friends.

B. There are strong differences in the relationships different groups have with food, with important implications to help guide future interventions, for example around public health. In particular, young people are much more likely than older people to have more negative psychological relationships with food, seeing it as a form of stress relief, and
associating it with a struggle to eat healthily.

The poll found:
• 50% of those aged 18-24 think of food as a “struggle to eat healthily” compared with 15% of those aged 65 and over.
• 59% of those aged 18-24 who think of food as a “form of stress relief” compared with 22% of those aged 65 and over.

In addition, people in receipt of benefits or with children on free school meals are far more likely to see food as an “annoying necessity”:
• 41% of those in receipt of benefits before the pandemic and 39% of those with children eligible for free school meals think of food as an annoying necessity, compared with 16% of those who are not on benefits and 21% not eligible for free school meals.

Read the full report
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In addition this report highlights: 

Our food system embodies some of the greatest social challenges the UK may face for the rest of the century. Pre-pandemic, poor diets were the biggest risk factor for poor health among people in the UK. Now, dietrelated poor health, such as diabetes and obesity, is in the top three biggest risk factorsfor death from Covid-19 There is also a close relationship between diet and inequality. Low-income households in deprived communities are most likely to have poor diets and they experience worse health outcomes as a result. This is partly why Covid-19 has been a ‘discriminatory’ virus, disproportionately affecting ethnic minority groups and the physically vulnerable.6

Compounding this has been a sharp increase in food insecurity that spiked during lockdown and is unlikely to quickly return to prepandemic levels without further action. The resilience of our national food supply has also come into question, with the public seeing the first food shortages for years during the first Covid-19 lockdown. The overnight closure of our ‘out of the home’ food sector - that provided nearly a quarter of our calories before lockdown - intensified food insecurity and indirectly put millions on furlough and at risk of redundancy.  So, while Covid-19 created many new challenges, it now also provides an unprecedented opportunity to reassess our food system.

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