Out-of-town superstores and the decline of local high street retailers are creating ‘food deserts’ around the UK, forcing up the price of groceries for low-income households and contributing to the rise of food banks, a new report has claimed.

Church Action Against Poverty and Oxfam UK say more than half a million people in the UK now rely on emergency food aid in the form of food banks or food parcels. Changes to the benefits system and delays in benefits payments were key factors behind growing food poverty in the UK, the charities said in their report, Walking the Bread Line, and they have called on the government to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the link between benefits changes and food poverty.

But they also highlighted the role of rising food and fuel prices, saying those on low incomes were subject to a “poverty premium” as a result of poor local amenities and services, which forced them to spend an extra £1,300 a year more on food and other goods and services, they claimed. They added: “the creation of large superstores and out-of-town shopping developments have driven local, independent retailers out of business and left the poorest people in ‘food deserts’ without access to affordable, healthy food.”

Groceries were as much as 69% more expensive in poor parts of the country than in richer areas, the charities’ report said, adding people on low incomes were increasingly struggling to afford healthy food, and fruit and veg consumption among the poorest households was falling.

This was not through choice but because healthy, affordable options were difficult to come by, the charities said, adding poor households were therefore at greater risk from malnutrition and diet-related illnesses. “There is a myth that low-income families eat unhealthy foods through choice, and that given more information they would make better choices. In fact, evidence shows that people on low incomes are aware of the need to eat fresh produce and are keen to do so.”

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers were well aware of the problems faced by lower-income households and were doing everything possible to keep food prices down. “That extends beyond price to dedicated promotions and recipe ideas to help all customers eat a healthy diet,” he said. “Where money is simply not available, retailers are working with charities across the UK to help them meet demand for food banks.”

Opie added retailers were increasingly investing in convenience stores rather than out-of-town stores, and availability of fresh, affordable produce in c-stores had greatly improved. “That will go some way towards addressing some of the issues raised in the report provided structural issues such as planning and delivery curfews do not hamper further development.”