A lack of opportunity to buy healthy and affordable food is causing hunger and malnutrition in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
Almost a quarter of people are living in poverty in Northern Ireland and coping with increasing food prices is making the problem ever more urgent, according to Martin Caraher, Professor of food and health policy at the City University London.
He was delivering a lecture on the subject at the West Belfast Festival.
"With almost a quarter of people living in poverty in Northern Ireland, coupled with increasing food prices, the issue of food poverty is becoming ever more urgent," he said.
"This is adding to the decline in health in areas where life expectancy in men can be on average eight years shorter than those living in wealthier areas in Northern Ireland, while for women the gap is five years. Trends suggest that this gap is widening."
He added: "Living in poverty puts people at risk of poor dietary intake. This not only affects what people eat but also has implications for lifestyle, social interaction and, importantly, health status.
"We know that many see food as a flexible item in the household budget and healthy food such as fresh fruit and vegetables can often be more expensive."
He said families often have to choose poor quality to stretch their weekly budget and mothers skip meals to feed their children, with cheap and highly-processed foods replacing nutritionally-balanced meals.
Prof Caraher added: "Food is a citizen's right and governments should create the opportunities and environment in which people can make healthy choices.
"There is also a need to establish food welfare programmes which offer food security and culturally appropriate food choices to vulnerable groups, this is especially so in light of the current financial crises and government austerity cuts."