Bleak research carried out by a North East mental health trust has shown that more than half of the people in the region live without reliable access to food. 

Over 50 per cent of people with severe mental illness (SMI) in the north of England live with food insecurity. This stat is considerably higher than the national average of 18 per cent.

Also known as food poverty, food insecurity is the lack of financial resources needed to ensure that a person has reliable access to enough food to meet their dietary, nutritional and social needs.

The first-of-its-kind research worked with people who have lived experience of SMI, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and related psychoses.

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Shocking results showed that 50.4 per cent of people involved in the study had experienced food insecurity.

The North West had the highest rate of food insecurity, followed closely by the North East and Humber.

Scientists also found that food insecurity had often been long-rooted, and identified some cases where generations of the same family do not have reliable access to food. 

The study lasted 18 months and recruited over 130 people from the North West, North East, north Cumbria and Yorkshire and Humber. It included a survey and interviews led by people with lived experience of SMI.

The research was hosted by Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust in collaboration with Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health (Teesside University & Newcastle University) and Equally Well UK (a collaborative hosted by the Centre for Mental Health).

It was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), the research partner of the NHS, public health and social care, as part of their NIHR Research for Patient Benefit – Mental Health in the North programme.

Jo Smith, consultant dietitian (clinical academic) for Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and Teesside University, said: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, people with SMI told us they were struggling to access enough food.

"We heard stories of people wanting to stay in the hospital for longer because they would not be able to eat when they returned home.

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“One reason that people with SMI struggle to access healthy food is they don’t always have the skills, equipment, knowledge and/or motivation to prepare a meal from fresh ingredients.

“We know that food insecurity can lead to a range of additional health problems and people living with SMI are at particularly high risk of experiencing food insecurity.

“A particular concern is that people with children were far more likely to have food insecurity, and one person told us that their friend had to sell electrical items so they could feed their children.”

The researchers and clinicians are now embarking on a further year-long research study looking specifically at potential solutions to tackle food insecurity and improve diets in Middlesbrough.

Millions of tonnes of high-quality fruit and vegetables go to waste every year from supermarkets and the food system. Despite a large amount being made available through social supermarkets, such as Eco Shops, there is still a lot not utilised as people lack the knowledge and equipment to cook them or use them in meals.

Researchers will work with people living with SMI to develop a range of nutritious recipes that can be transformed into ready meals and made available in social supermarkets across the town.

A new partnership has been developed to deliver this research including Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, Teesside University and community organisation Middlesbrough Environment City. It is being funded by the NIHR Programme Development Grant programme.

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The findings will be used to develop a further funding application to scale up the production of ready meals using surplus food, helping a range of vulnerable groups improve their diet.

Professor Emma Giles, Professor of Integrating Physical and Mental Health at Teesside University and co-lead of the Behaviour Change Research Cluster in Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, said: “Our previous research found that people with SMI want to see support, interventions and/or policies to be put in place to support them to access enough food, but also accessing food that is of good nutritional quality.

“The ongoing research trialling the repurposing of fruits and vegetables into a ready meal is one intervention that may address a lack of access to food but also diet quality.”