Media Release

16% of children missed meals due to hardship during pandemic

16% of parents say their children missed meals due to hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic, a think-tank report shows today.

The Social Market Foundation’s findings suggest that more than 1.9 million children have gone short of food amid this year’s economic turmoil.

And overall one in four children, 3 million in total, faced some form of food deprivation in the six months following the first nationwide lockdown that started in March.

The SMF, a cross-party charity, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents, using an internationally recognised questionnaire based on the one the UK Government is employing to develop the first official statistics on child hunger.

The report was sponsored by the food delivery firm Deliveroo, a member of the Child Food Poverty Taskforce set up by the footballer Marcus Rashford.

The SMF also modelled how many children in each local authority area in Great Britain have very low food security. Five of the ten authorities with the highest share of children at risk of hunger are in London; the others are in Devon and Lancashire, something the SMF said showed the challenge of food security is spread across the country. (Complete rankings by local authority are available here).

The think-tank said its findings suggest that child poverty and hunger are deeper and more widespread than previously thought.

The SMF report, entitled Measuring and mitigating child hunger in the UK, adds new evidence to the public and political debate over child hunger, an issue highlighted by Rashford and others this year.

There are currently no official statistics on the number of children living in food insecurity. The Government last year made changes to the Family Resources Survey, an official measure of household living standards, to cover food insecurity, but data covering the period of the pandemic will not be published until 2022.

The SMF/Opinium survey shows:

  • 16% of parents said that their children made do with smaller portions, had to skip meals or went a day without eating between March and September.
  • Reported usage of food banks rose from 8% before the crisis to 11% since, but reported take-up of free school meals went down slightly from 22% to 20%.
  • Only 30% of children receiving free school meals are classified as having very low food security, suggesting that school meals are effective at reducing hunger.
  • However, 60% of children classified as “very low food security” in the survey did receive free school meals, indicating that FSM services are not reaching all those who need them.

The SMF analysis of food insecurity is based on the US Federal government’s Children’s Food Security Scale. On that measure, 14% of British children – 1.7 million in total – have faced such persistent deprivation amid this year’s economic downturn that they could be classed as suffering “very low food security”, the think-tank said.

Aveek Bhattacharya, Chief Economist, Social Market Foundation said:

“The stark evidence in this report shows that the challenge of food insecurity and child hunger is even greater and more urgent than many observers had thought and feared. The idea of a single child going short of food is heartbreaking but our evidence shows that almost 2 million children have been in that awful situation this year. 

“Our analysis of food insecurity at a local authority level shows that this is a problem that is faced across the country, from our capital city to the rural south-west of England and the towns of the north-west. Food insecurity and child hunger are an urgent national challenge.

“Ministers and other leaders can help address the challenge of child hunger by expanding eligibility for free school meals and extending holiday food programmes. Because the fundamental driver of food insecurity is poverty, welfare must be bolstered, starting with retaining the £20 ‘temporary’ increase in Universal Credit.”

Will Shu, CEO and Founder, Deliveroo said:

“At Deliveroo we want to play our part in supporting the families and children most affected by food insecurity. As a proud member of the Marcus Rashford child poverty Taskforce, this is an issue we care deeply about and we are pleased to support this timely report by the Social Market Foundation which lays bare the urgent situation facing many children and their families.

“Through our work with charities and restaurant partners to deliver food to vulnerable people throughout this year, Deliveroo has seen first-hand the impact of COVID-19 on child food poverty. That’s why we have been working to deliver tens of thousands of free meals to families in need throughout the year.

“Building on the efforts that the Government has already made during this pandemic, it is our hope that the findings of this report act as an important reminder to keep working together and doing all we can to support those children and families most in need.” 

The SMF report makes five recommendations to ministers and other policymakers on food insecurity:

  1. Implement all recommendations highlighted in the National Food Strategy – this includes expanding eligibility for free school meals; extend the Holiday Activity and Food Programme; and increase the value of Healthy Start Vouchers and expand the scheme.
  2. Bolster Universal Credit and the wider benefits system – The fundamental driver of food insecurity is a lack of money. The Government needs to find ways to get cash into the hands of those facing greatest hardship – perhaps by retaining the temporary £20 increase in Universal Credit, increasing its child element or widening coverage.
  3. Coordinate and mobilise a national network of food redistribution – harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of businesses and civil society, the Government should coordinate food redistribution at a national level and provide funding for schemes to reduce waste, identify sources of waste in the food chain and direct surplus food to the places where it is required most.
  4. Devolve responsibility and funding for on the ground food distribution to local authorities – Local authorities have the local knowledge, relationships and facilities necessary to cover the ‘last mile’ of food distribution. They should be given support and autonomy to develop Food Plans to meet their area’s needs, with ministerial oversight.
  5. Introduce healthy eating programmes across all local authorities – long term, it is critical to take a more holistic approach to developing a healthier food ‘ecosystem’. The Government should build on the expansion of Holiday Activity and Food programmes and encourage and support community-led initiatives such as food education schemes.


  • For media requests, please contact SMF Impact Officer, Linus Pardoe – or 07402 576995


  1. The SMF report was sponsored by Deliveroo. The SMF retained full editorial independence. The report is published today, Wednesday 9 December at
  2. Other evidence on missed meals: In the Food Standards Agency’s COVID-19 tracker survey, the proportion of people in households with children that said that they had cut down meal sizes or skipped meals in the last month ranged from 24% to 33% between April and July. The Food Foundation estimates the same number to be between 10% and 19%.
  3. The SMF/Opinium survey was conducted between 3-20 October. A nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults was used, from which a sample of 1,000 parents of children aged under 18 was identified.


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