Food budgets as little as 20 pounds a week for low income families

Poorer households are spending as little as £2.10 per person per day on groceries to cope with rising bills and shrinking incomes.

Figures released as part of the Real Life Reform survey showed a drastic drop in food budgets since the summer with one third of the 87 families surveyed saying they now spent less than £20 a week on food.  More than half also said they had no money left once bills were paid.

The combination of shrinking incomes, rising living costs and high personal debt has meant that the "reality of everyday life has got tougher" for low-income families.  The report also found that welfare changes such as the bedroom tax introduced in April of this year had contributed to the pressure families were under..

The survey examined the finances and everyday habits of tenants in eight housing associations in north-west England and Yorkshire in October where 20% of tenants were in work. The average household weekly income for social housing tenants in the region is £265 a week.

The survey found that food spending had fallen from £3.27 a person a day in July to £2.10 in October.  It also revealed that in some cases neighbours were sharing the cost of meals, including one group of women who clubbed together to cook a Sunday roast to ensure their children ate "decent food".  Others were using food banks, eating with relatives, or missing out on some meals altogether to cope with the lack of cash.

One tenant quoted in the report said: "We don't have breakfast and dinner now. We have one meal a day. We've been doing that for about two months and we've got used to it."

Chief executive of Leeds and Yorkshire Housing Association Lisa Pickard said that despite incredible resilience, some families were struggling to survive: "With the pressure of worsening weather, rising energy costs and Christmas, there is no question that people will face difficult choices – between eating or heating their homes and getting into more debt."

Frank Field, chair of the all party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty, told the Guardian the hardship demonstrated in the report reflected already established trends that had been made worse by welfare reform.

"It begins to explain why people have fallen back on food banks as one way of making an inadequate budget stretch further."

After rent, bedroom tax, transport costs, clothing and council tax, it found participating families spent an average of £33 a week on food. Many participants said they now bought cheaper, lower quality food, and were eating less fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.

Cuts in food spending were in part a response to rising weekly energy bills, up 16% since the first survey in July, and amounting to an average of £30 a week. Fuel bills were expected to increase in the winter, though the report noted that in October the average family had just £4.79 left after bills were paid (down from £12.50 in July), making it unclear where the cash for extra heating would come from.

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