Low-income families in hard times in Europe: food poverty within a multi-level framework

Low-income families in hard times in Europe: food poverty within a multi-level framework

It was an honour to be invited to give a plenary presentation to the ‘Inequality on a Plate’ conference hosted by the Finnish Society for Nutrition Research and the Society for Social Medicine on Friday 05 November 2021. I was delighted to join the conference in person and pay my first visit to wonderful – if wet! – Helsinki, whilst Julia joined the discussion by Zoom.

Families and Food in Hard Times research project

Professor Maijaliisa (Maikki) Erkkola, Department of Food and Nutrition, University of Helsinki, kindly invited us to talk about our new book, Families and Food in Hard Times: European Comparative Research, based on our European Research Council funded study of food in low-income families in the UK, Portugal and Norway. The three countries were selected to provide a contrast of contexts in relation to policies of ‘austerity’ that were introduced in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. In the UK and Portugal, poverty and food poverty were the result of inadequate incomes from paid work and social security benefits, compounded by welfare retrenchment that hit the poorest families hardest. Whilst Norway was less affected by the recession, and benefits are relatively generous, entitlement is firmly tied to labour market participation and a high skills economy.

As researchers at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education – which specialises in policy-relevant research on children and families – our research set out to understand how these contrasting contexts shaped the food and eating practices of low-income families living in different places. We were interested in differences between families as well as what happens within them – how parents manage on constrained budgets and what children and young people say about their experiences when there is not enough money or food to go round.

Poverty and food insecurity in different types of families

In researching what shaped the food eaten by young people and their families, we conceptualised reality at three intersecting analytic levels. At the macro level, we examined national policies, discourses and data concerning access to food in each country, whilst at the meso level we explored the resources available locally via observations and interviews, including with teachers. At the micro level of the family, qualitative interviews and other methods were carried out with young people aged 11-16 years, and at least one parent, in 133 families living in two contrasting regions of each country, including the capital cities and less urbanised locations. The chapters of the book focus on poverty and food insecurity among different types of families – unemployed lone mothers, working couples, undocumented migrants – who are at risk of food insecurity and have been the subject of public and policy discourses. We also examine children and families’ experiences of social exclusion from customary food and eating practices and also look at the role of different types of resources – not only money but family and friends, for example, as well as school meals – play in mitigating the effects of poverty on children’s and families’ diets.

From financial crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic

Whilst the study was designed and funded in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, and evidence of rising food insecurity in some European countries, we completed the book in the context of a much worse global crisis – that of the Covid-19 pandemic – that is again hitting the poorest hardest. Devastatingly, the research is just as relevant now as it was then, given evidence that the ‘perfect storm’ is again hitting parts of Europe, with Covid-19, economic recession and rising living costs leading to rising levels of poverty and food insecurity. As we argue in the book, international comparative research provides vital evidence of the role of national policies in shaping the conditions in which families manage – or do not manage – to feed themselves. Furthermore, international research teams – and conferences – are vital to build solidarities that are necessary for challenging the neoliberalism and nationalisms that are sweeping across Europe with devastating consequences for social and health inequalities, including as they manifest on our plates.

Families and Food in Hard Times was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) /ERC grant agreement n° 337977.


Rebecca O’Connell,
Reader in the Sociology of Food and Families
Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education
Twitter: @r_oconnell

Julia Brannen,
Emerita Professor of the Sociology of the Family,
Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education
Twitter: @juliabrannen