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Families and food poverty in three European Countries in an Age of Austerity

Final Report Summary - FFP (Families and food poverty in three European Countries in an Age of Austerity)

Families and Food in Hard Times employed a mixed methods embedded case study design to examine how social contexts and social positionings mediate the extent and experience of food poverty. Providing for ‘a contrast of contexts’ in relation to conditions of austerity, the study focused on Portugal, where poor families with children have been most affected by economic retrenchment, the UK, which is experiencing substantial cuts to social security, and Norway which, compared with most western societies, is egalitarian and has not experienced austerity measures.

Secondary analysis of large scale datasets identified families most at risk of food poverty nationally: the EU Survey of Income and Living Conditions (EU SILC), Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) and Living Costs and Food Survey (LCFS). It found that food insecurity has generally increased for families in the three countries between 2005 and 2016. However, whilst Portugal has the highest poverty rates of the three countries, the UK has the highest rates of food insecurity. In addition, lone parent families in all three countries are at greater risk of food insecurity than couple families. In the UK and Norway, but not Portugal, this is the case even after controlling for low income.
Qualitative interviews and visual methods with young people, aged 11-15 years, and their parents or carers examined the experiences of low-income families in the three countries. In total, one hundred and thirty three families were interviewed between 2015 and 2017, in two areas: the capital city in each country and a less urbanised area. Confirming the quantitative findings, the qualitative research found a greater proportion of lone parent low-income families experiencing food poverty compared to couple parents in the UK and Norway, but not in Portugal, despite relatively less generous social security benefits. Possible explanations are that, whilst families in all three countries relied on formal and informal sources of support, in-kind (food) support from family, friends and NGOs was critical for Portuguese families.
Parents managed limited food resources by sacrificing their own food intake in each country. Despite this, some children went hungry, particularly in households reliant on social security. In Portugal, however, the proportion of young people that went without enough food was lower than in the other two countries.
Statutory three-course school meals seemed to be part of the explanation, mitigating the effects of poverty on Portuguese children’s diets. National policies in Portugal meant almost all the children are eligible for a free or subsidised meal. In the UK, by comparison, national policies restricted access to free school meals (FSMs) whilst local school practices varied, so that only around half of the children were entitled to a FSM and many said it did not fill them up. Some of the poorest children in the UK, whose families were subject to immigration control, did not qualify for a FSM. Parents in both countries found it hard to manage in school holidays when many children went hungry. However, in Norway, because no school meals are provided, ‘packed lunch poverty’ was common and associated with the high cost of bread.

The study examined social exclusion linked to food-related activities. A majority of parents in each country turned down invitations to eat out, as they could not afford it. In Portugal, a larger proportion said they could not invite friends to share meals at home although eating with extended family was common. Portuguese young people placed greater emphasis on family meals while in the UK and Norway eating out with friends was a norm, with some pooling money and sharing food. Others ‘saved face’, concealing reasons for not socialising. Only in the UK, where high levels of consumerism are coupled with high income inequality, children said they felt socially excluded and ashamed about being unable to join in.