RGU research shows growing problems of food insecurity amongst young mothers

Wednesday 24 May 2023

Image shows mother holding a child's hand
RGU led research shows that young mothers in the North East of Scotland are experiencing increasing levels of poverty and food insecurity, that have got worse since the Covid pandemic.

The research unveiled as part of the latest RGU Research Revealed series, calls on the government to introduce ‘big ticket’ interventions to turn the tide on child poverty and recommends more investment and a shift in focus to prevention to tackle food insecurity.

The research has been led by Professor in Public Health, Flora Douglas and a small team from the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedic Practice at Robert Gordon University from Robert Gordon with funding from the NHS Grampian and NHS Grampian Charity, who have worked in partnership with communities in the North East to explore the hidden nature of poverty in the region. 

Working in partnership with health professionals and a food pantry network in the north east, the team carried out two interview studies between 2020 and 2022 to explore the experiences of parents from low-income households with babies and infants, particularly mothers.

One of the key aims of the research was to assess the impact of national policies aimed at ameliorating child poverty in low-income households in the north east of Scotland. The policies, centre around the Child Poverty Act (2017) in Scotland, which require all health visitors, midwives and family nurses in Scotland to screen and offer financial advice, otherwise known as ‘Financial Inclusion Pathways’ (FIPs) to at-risk pregnant women and parents/carers of families with children under five in Scotland to tackle child poverty

The first study involved 22 pregnant women and mothers with at least one child under five who shared their experiences. The second study involved interviews with 18 midwives, health visitors and family nurse partners who offered their expertise from the frontline. Almost all participants were claiming Universal Credit and lived in the multiply deprived postcode areas within Aberdeen City.

The research highlights worrying levels of poverty driven food insecurity that has got worse since the Covid Pandemic, as Professor Flora Douglas, explains: “Across Scotland it’s estimated that approximately 50,000 children are living in poverty, with predictions that this trend will continue to rise in future years. (Scottish Child Poverty Statistics.) Sadly, in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, just over a fifth (21.8%) of children are living in poverty.

“UN observers have highlighted the declining value of women’s incomes in the last decade which, coupled with reductions in social care services in the UK, on which many women rely on to stay in the workplace. All of these factors are leading to extreme levels poverty and hardship amongst women living in the UK.

“Our research reveals the difficulties many parents on low incomes experience, and the shame and embarrassment many are experiencing in admitting hardship.  There’s a stigma in asking health professionals for help with many low-income parents being too scared that their children could be referred to social services and taken into care if they ask for help. Others feared that asking for help, could exacerbate often existing abusive partnership relationships.

“Our research also showed a lack of confidence amongst health professionals, about how best to speak to parents about their financial well-being with many aware that mothers often wanted to ‘hide’ their poverty from them. They recognised that this was a problem but reported a lack of time and knowledge to do so effectively. They also highlighted that young mothers were particularly vulnerable to the financial exploitation of local money lenders.

“Concerns about food insecurity and the nutritional quality of the food, have been commonly reported in previous food poverty studies however what’s alarming now is that the admissions of living with debt are featuring more prominently compared to previous studies. The situation of food insecurity has got far worse since the Covid pandemic and there needs to be a real urgency to tackle the problems.

“We found that parents are using careful budgeting to make ends meet and going without food and other personal expenditures as a way of coping. Many are relying on charity or extended family for help with feeding and have insufficient income to cover the costs of living, council tax and other debt associated with overpayment of benefits. Unfortunately, it has become ‘normalised’ for mothers on low incomes to go without food and to sacrifice basics in life, to support their children.

“Families with very young children are the most insecure, particularly women whose incomes are not keeping up with the cost of infant formulae and other basic food supplies, even with the support of benefits. Food insecurity is hiding in plain sight and society is not paying enough attention to how bad the situation really is and how policies are tackling the problem.

“Another worrying trend is that rising food insecurity is making it harder for some women to breastfeed, and for some families to afford to formula feed. It may also be affecting the diets of pregnant women and young children; especially as healthy foods are generally more expensive than unhealthy foods. 

“What’s more alarming is that between March 2021 and November 2022, the most widely available and purchased infant formulas increased in cost by 15-23% and the cheapest and only ‘own-brand’ infant formula (Aldi’s Mamia) increased by 33%. There are also no infant formulas affordable with the Health Start Allowance.

“As mothers continue to remain responsible for infant feeding (either as food producers themselves or through infant formula procurement from commercial sources) there is an urgent need to develop a better understanding of the nature and extent of maternal and infant food security in the UK to develop more effective public policy and health care practice.  We need to explore further the extent of maternal food insecurity and to find out how this is impacting the health of pregnant, postpartum women and infant food security.

“There needs to be ‘big ticket’ interventions to turn the tide including more investment and a shift in focus to prevention. This includes policy actions that increase household incomes like the newly introduced Scottish Child Payment, as well as other strengthening actions that can support parents and health professionals access community supports, that can help maximise household income. For example, the Community Link Worker programme, which places non-medical staff into GP practices to support patients with personal, social, emotional and financial issues.

“We have been focusing so much on behaviour change in terms of diet and health but often what’s holding people back is not a lack of motivation, it’s not a lack of knowledge, it’s not even a lack of skill. It’s only recently I have been hearing officials being honest about saying we have got to look at this more broadly. We can fix this situation by acknowledging it’s these profound structural factors playing a role and inhibiting people.” 


AberNecessities is a frontline charity based in Dyce, set up in 2019, to help disadvantaged families with the essential and basic necessities. Single mum Laila, who now volunteers at the charity, originally received support to help her and her son, Declan. Reflecting on her experiences, Laila says: “It is hard to ask for help especially when it’s for your child. It can make you feel like you’re not doing enough. You feel like you’re very stuck and can’t provide for your child. It definitely affects your mental health, it’s hard breaking sometimes.”

Danielle Fletcher-Horn, Founder of AberNecessities said: “We provide underprivileged, local families from across Aberdeen and the shire, with items to look after their babies and families. Things like nappies, formula milk, food, clothing and equipment. For a lot of the families who we support, they were already in crisis. Then we were hit by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis and it’s just exacerbated everything. This crisis wasn’t a new thing for some of our families, but it’s made their crisis even worse. Families are definitely feeling the pinch even more now.”

The research will be explored further in the latest RGU Research Revealed series with interviews from Professor Flora Douglas; Aberdeen charity, AberNecessities; and international insight from Dr Lesley Franks from Acadia University in Canada.

Image shows mother, Laila,  a volunteer at AberNecessities, and her son, Declan.

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