Would you be shocked to discover your neighbours had skipped meals to ensure their children could eat?

Hazel Ratcliffe was.

The young mum, inset, from Ballingry, near Lochgelly, was part of the group of lone parents responsible for compiling a new report on rural poverty.

"Quite a few single parents sit through the day in the cold without heating so there is enough when the children come home from school. That's happening in Fife," she says. "Fuel poverty has massive impacts on health."

Ms Ratcliffe was left as the lone parent of two boys aged 11 and nine, when her partner left six years ago.

Unwilling to conform to the stereotype of a single stay-at-home mum living on benefits, she immediately took a course in biomedical science. "I'd enjoyed science at school, where I did well and got six Highers," she says.

However, she hadn't thought through the jobs on offer. Emerging qualified for jobs involving lab work, often at unusual hours, she was unable to juggle transport, childcare and employment. She volunteered instead for the charity Gingerbread Fife and is now taking an HNC at college in working with communities.

It was through Gingerbread that she became involved in a group carrying out research on rural lone parents and poverty, the findings of which are published today by the Poverty Alliance.

The report paints a bleak picture, and indeed, Ms Ratcliffe says she was stunned to discover that many lone parents were much worse off than herself.

"I have massive support from my family and if I didn't have money for food I could always go to my mum's. But the number of people in Fife facing real poverty was a big surprise, it really opened our eyes." The study, carried out by a team of single parents themselves, found that low income was affecting every aspect of the quality of lives of other lone parents. Rising costs of fuel and food were a key concern.

Welfare reform was also a major issue for many lone parents, but not just in terms of loss of income. The stress and anxiety which many felt about reforms such as the migration from incapacity benefit to the newer Employment and Support Allowance was a significant factor in their lives.

Recent changes mean parents are now urged to seek work as soon as their youngest child turns five. However in rural areas, finding a job which is viable is a significant problem, the report claims.

Even travelling to attend job interviews can be a challenge, due to higher transport costs. The report claims more than a third of lone parents are living on a gross weekly income of £200 or less.

The Department for Work and Pensions requires job seekers to make themselves available for any job within 90 minutes' travelling time of their home. For single parents in Fife, that brings Glasgow, for example, into the equation.

In reality, that simply isn't realistic for single parents, Ms Ratcliffe argues. "If you leave for work at 7.30am and don't get back until 6.30, by the time you've factored in child care, and fuel or fares, the chances are you are no better off. Especially because a lot of lone parents are looking for jobs in areas such as retail, where you can get work without experience."

In fact, a third of lone parents surveyed were already in employment, but many reported financial difficulties in spite of this.

Fiona McHardy, community research officer with the Poverty Alliance, said: "People are actively looking and trying to get work but it can be almost impossible because of the cost of things like childcare and transport. It limits where people can apply for jobs and whether those jobs are viable."

Having lone parents themselves carry out the research had meant it was easier to reach others and get them to open up about the challenges they faced, she added.

She said the findings made clear the urgent need for a co-ordinated strategy to deal with the problem of food poverty in Scotland, adding: "This needs to go beyond the crisis response of food banks. This report shows the lengths parents are having to go to protect children – skipping food to make ends meet, selling their belongings, avoiding public transport and turning off heating."

Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, added: "This research shows that for people living on benefits it is frequently a life of struggle and of going without.

"We need to recognise the incredible job that these parents do in the face of real hardship. We also need to do far more to protect and support them where we can."

MSP Mary Fee, who will speak at the report's launch in Glasgow today, added: "I was stunned to learn of the problems facing lone parents in rural Fife, which will be replicated throughout rural Scotland.

"This report is very insightful and informative and as convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee I will be making sure that the issues raised will be looked at in the women and work inquiry."

She added: "Lone parents in all parts of Scotland are suffering and the impact of these welfare reforms we have seen this week will further hammer rural lone parents already living in poverty and isolation."