Food poverty is not unique to the UK. In 2013, there were an estimated 870 million people around the world going to bed hungry every night.
The rising number of people in the UK resorting to food banks and other types of food help over the past couple of years has been well documented by charities like the Trussell Trust, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty.
The ensuing media attention means food aid is now firmly on the political agenda, which is why Defra asked Warwick University and the Food Ethics Council to do an evidence assessment to improve understanding of the UK food aid landscape.
“Businesses should engage to prevent food poverty being accepted”
Informal food aid has existed in the UK for decades. However, its scale and visibility are growing. Is that because the problem is getting worse or because some media and MPs have hijacked food aid to score political points about other societal issues? I suspect it is a mixture of the two, and our report, published last week, has been at the centre of that political game.
This is disappointing to say the least. People who access informal food aid are suffering and their plight should not be subject to political ya-boohing. Food poverty means parents forced to choose between heating and eating, or giving their children chips for tea because they’re cheaper than freshly cooked food.
It is shameful that there are citizens in a rich Western country unable to access affordable food. This is a structural issue, and it requires long-term solutions. Our research indicates that turning to food aid is very much a last resort. While there is a lack of peer-reviewed systematic evidence, referrers (eg Citizens Advice Bureau) and providers (eg Trussell Trust foodbanks) report a range of factors driving people to such action. Benefit sanctions and benefit delays tend to be the most prominent triggers, but low income, indebtedness and rising food (and other) costs are also key drivers.
Everyone involved in food security policy and practice needs to focus on the short and long-term causes of household food insecurity. I’d specifically urge food business executives to take food poverty seriously.
They should listen to the experiences of people living below the breadline and explore lasting solutions such as employing long-term unemployed or disadvantaged people, and adopting the living wage.
They can also learn from countries such as the US and Canada, where informal food aid provision is deeply entrenched and millions rely on it every day. Multinationals are in an unrivalled position to be able to transfer relevant lessons to the UK.
Food businesses should engage actively now to prevent food poverty becoming institutionalised. I’d hazard a guess that most food executives will want to be able to say positive things in 2020 about the contribution their business has made to alleviating, rather than entrenching, food poverty.
I believe a collective effort, addressing short-term needs and developing long-term solutions, can eradicate the spectre of hunger from homes across our country.
Dan Crossley is executive director of the Food Ethics Council