The speed with which the politics of austerity has rocketed up the agenda since the autumn party conferences should not surprise food watchers. Ed Miliband’s proposal to cap energy bills for 20 months has resonated across parliamentary divides. Now there is talk of containing rising water bills.

Meanwhile, aid is being thrown at the housing market and £375bn of quantitative easing has bolstered UK banks for four years. Yet the public sector continues to be blamed for ‘living beyond national means’ and the dominant political narrative has been all about the need to cut the state, reinvigorate enterprise, and rein in the undeserving poor who sap the nation’s wealth. The living standards debate questions that dominant narrative.

“How long will it be before food costs are centre stage in policy discourse?”

More attention on low-income lives is long overdue. Evidence of the squeeze has mounted for years, a story of steady inflation, eroding wages, and job insecurity, all overlaid by international commodity and political uncertainties.

How long will it be before food costs are centre stage in this new policy discourse? Will anyone dare to act on food prices? After years of using supermarkets to control prices, can something else be done? Could they be capped?

The problem is what to do and how. Already, an old avenue is being explored: children’s food. The Autumn Statement promised £600m to make school meals free and universal for the first three years. This is helpful but subsidises the low-wage economy.

The government’s Commission on Social Mobility raised the stakes two weeks ago. Its first report acknowledged food as a key factor in living standards, calculating that from 2007 to 2012 food became 30% more expensive and gas 57%. No wonder poverty groups cite a ‘heating or eating’ dilemma.

Child poverty is rising after years of decline three-quarters of these children live in households with working parents. Work is “not a cure for poverty” said the Commission, since wages are so often low. Real median weekly earnings have fallen by 10.2% since 2009 and are now lower than in 1997. The Commission described this simply as “a tight squeeze on standards of living”. That’s an understatement.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University London