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A living wage – not food aid – is answer to issue of food poverty

Food banks are great, but a living wage is better. David Jones/PA

Charitable food provision is growing, and more and more people are being fed by food banks and other initiatives. The press and TV have debated the legitimacy of such provision and highlighted the number of users. Clearly many people contribute food, time and other resources to sustain these worthy deeds.

But why are people going to food banks in the UK? And is charitable food the answer to what many describe as food poverty?

Charity and local action is certainly welcome, but by itself it is not enough. A group of 170 leading public health professionals, including me, has written an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling for further action as people are increasingly trapped between falling or stagnant wages and rising food prices.

Many others have recognised this problem. Just before Easter a group of leading Christian clergy and other faith leaders wrote to the main party leaders to challenge the moral position of a rich country with rising numbers unable to feed themselves adequately. At the same time, an All Party Parliamentary Group initiated an Inquiry into Food Poverty, chaired by the Bishop of Truro; its terms of reference go beyond “food banks”, and a call for written evidence will be supplemented by hearings in at least five parts of the country. This builds on growing concern among government agencies and NGOs such as Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam.

The story isn’t new, however: food poverty has existed in the UK for a long time – often hidden, but contributing to inequalities in health and wellbeing. And the bishops have form as well: in February they challenged the government to listen to people’s stories of struggling to manage in austerity, and to church experiences of trying to help.

At the same time, and after a long delay, Defra published research by myself, two other academics and the Food Ethics Council, on the use of food aid in the UK. We found the main reasons why people are increasingly asking for food help are “crises” in household income from loss of jobs or problems with social security benefits, often underpinned by on-going problems of low income, rising food and other costs, and increasing indebtedness. For many households, asking for food assistance is a strategy of last resort, and many more who need help do not ask for it.

Our research also showed that informal food aid can meet short-term needs, so long as the provision is sufficient, healthy and meets cultural needs. But it does not address the underlying causes of household food insecurity and thus does not solve the major problems – however well intentioned and organised.

In the storm of media commentary following these publications, I was surprised by how many seemed surprised at the findings: we have had economic austerity measures in the UK for at least four years, and the effects of cuts in jobs, wages and welfare are well documented.

Less widely understood perhaps are the current challenges to the global food system which, among other things, have led to higher food prices; Defra’s own data show that since 2000, average incomes of low-income households have risen by 22%, but food prices have gone up 33%. People on low incomes are caught in a pincer movement of impoverishment and malnourishment, but no-one seems to have responsibility to ensure people have enough money for daily food.

Our 2010 research for Defra showed that many even then were finding it much harder to afford the food they wanted, and that food costs were a serious source of stress. This was before any austerity measures, including all the changes to social security benefits; inevitably, things will be worse now.

Policy responses have tended to blame individual failings – “people do not know how to budget, shop and cook” – and to laud local-level food initiatives and charitable redistribution efforts to help people in increasing need. (Indeed, many local councils are diverting the emergency loan money to local food banks.)

These do a great job and the generosity of the workers and volunteers is not in doubt. But, as many who work in the voluntary sector know well, the efforts involved are too small and too piecemeal to meet systematic need – they can only manage stop-gap, emergency help – and the work is very hard to sustain, particularly for volunteers. It is no substitute for an accountable system of social security.

Indeed, abdicating responsibility to voluntary, local level responses, however careful and well meaning, contributes to depoliticising the problem and fails to tackle society-wide causes. It also puts blame on those who least deserve it. A look at the evidence from Europe and North America reveals that while local level solutions have their place, including potential for advocacy, they cannot address the real reasons many people go hungry.

For that we need more reliable indicators so that problems can be monitored systematically. We must acknowledge just how serious this is – that there are people who cannot afford to provide themselves and their families with a healthy diet. At the very least we need widespread adoption of the living wage and proper work contracts, so that people can have sustainable livelihoods, rather than charity.

We can all eat fairly and well in this rich country, but we need creative imagination and expression of communal values to do so. To perpetuate an inappropriate response is surely a collective moral failing.

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