This week, Citizens Advice reported providing a record level of crisis support in 2023. By the end of August, 160,000 people required referrals to foodbanks and other charitable support, an increase of 16% on last year. The major causes for this rise, they reported, are record housing costs coupled with rocketing food prices, both of which have long outpaced wage growth. These issues are perpetuating health inequalities among the most vulnerable. They are also related in a number of important ways.
Increasing housing costs are driving food insecurity, leaving people with far lower proportions of their income to spend on groceries. In July, average rents in the UK reached their highest rate on record, while grocery costs remain far above the consumer price index. Last year The Food Foundation found that healthy food is three times more expensive per calorie than unhealthy food. Add to this the substantial rise in food bank use over the past decade – Trussell Trust distributed a record 3 million food parcels between 2022-23, a rise of 37 per cent on the year before – and it’s clear that the cost of living crisis has sharpened the dual crises of housing affordability and food costs. Faced with lower incomes that don’t reflect the rising cost of essentials, people who are already disadvantaged are increasingly unable to afford both.
With homelessness rates rising and more people being evicted from rented properties, it’s unsurprising that more people are turning to food banks. Nor is it a surprise that more people are living in temporary accommodation – up 74 per cent in the decade to 2023.
Temporary accommodation as a system is meant to provide short-term homes for people pushed into homelessness and rough sleeping, but often exacerbates the problem of food insecurity. Accommodation provided by local councils, such as hotels and B&Bs, often have limited or no facilities to safely cook or store food, forcing people to rely on ready meals and fast food or to risk health and safety hazards by trying to cook in unsuitable conditions. These limited options leave people with a choice between food that isn’t nutritious or no food at all.
Overcrowding and a lack of basic facilities in temporary accommodation can pose a direct threat to health. A study by Crisis found that almost two-thirds of people (63 per cent) say that living in temporary accommodation has had a negative impact on their mental health and half (51 per cent) say that it has had a negative impact on their physical health.
The UK Housing Review 2021 found that individuals living in overcrowded or poorly maintained accommodation are more likely to suffer from respiratory conditions and more susceptible to infectious diseases. The report also highlighted that children growing up in temporary accommodation often face developmental challenges that will affect their growth and lead to worse health in later life.
People who are private and social rented tenants can also experience the impact of poor conditions on food access. As properties become smaller and more overcrowded, having sufficient space to safely cook and eat food is reducing. The Decent Homes Standard should ensure that properties have safe facilities and an appropriate kitchen, however nine per cent of social rented properties in England do not meet the standard, and 23 per cent of private rented properties fail to meet the standard, which is not yet legally required.
Our homes should be a safe place that supports our essential needs, including the food we need to live well. Unaffordable housing costs and unsuitable accommodation mean a healthy diet is increasingly out of reach for people who have already seen their wellbeing and health suffer over the past ten years. These two systems do not exist independently. Addressing the current housing crisis would alleviate some of the pressure of eating regular healthy meals that millions face every day.
Bradford Watson is Media and Communications Officer at People's Health Trust