Food poverty is an extreme example of what happens when the welfare system breaks down
Last month the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, published its annual data, including figures for London. The results were alarming, but sadly, not surprising.
In 2013/14 the organisation recorded 95,639 visitors to its 39 food banks in the capital – a 114 per cent increase on the previous year. The figures only served to confirm what we already suspected – that in London and the rest of the UK, despite the fledgling economic recovery, the increase in food poverty is showing no sign of slowing down.
With this latest data in mind, this week I submitted evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain. Co-chaired by Frank Field MP, the outcome of this investigation should inform policies of all main parties, but is likely to make unwelcome reading for any politician wanting to ignore the impact of the current government’s approach to welfare.
It is likely that a large proportion of the submissions to the inquiry will agree that food poverty, and the associated proliferation of food bank use, is an extreme example of what happens when the welfare system breaks down.
Trussell Trust data shows that a quarter of food bank users cited benefit delays as the reason they were forced to resort to emergency food aid. In many cases these are people who even this government believes are entitled to social security payments, but failures within the system are increasingly causing delays in processing claims and denying people access to funds.
Equally, the current sanctions regime often results in unfair and seemingly arbitrary withdrawals of social security payments that can leave claimants with no income whatsoever, often for prolonged periods of time. Resolving the systemic problems with the processing of benefits is vital and should be a priority for any political party serious about fighting food poverty.
With Brazil looking like a good bet for World Cup victory in their home nation, it seems fitting that we can also learn lessons from the Brazilian approach to food poverty. Over 10 years ago, the Brazilian government designed the Fome Zero (‘Zero Hunger’) programme under the leadership of José Graziano da Silva, who is now director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. A key aspect of the Brazilian programme was a commitment to ensure that all children should have three meals a day.
Our government would do well to learn lessons here, for food poverty and child hunger is a developed world problem too. In London, it is estimated that 74,000 children regularly go to bed hungry and for around 82,000 children in London their school lunch is the biggest meal of the day, suggesting they do not get the food they need at home.
A child’s right to food should be so undeniable that it should not need to be defined as a policy goal in the UK.
Yet, the growth of hunger and food poverty is most shocking with vulnerable groups such as children. Hunger amongst school age children affects their concentration and attainment in school. It exacerbates the problem of childhood obesity, as many children and parents turn to unhealthy foods that are cheaper on a low budget. Food poverty among children is therefore both a social mobility and a health problem.
Ultimately, driving up pay and limiting the impact of benefit changes are the key to addressing the shameful levels of child hunger. Other measures – breakfasts, lunches, after school and holiday provision – need to be considered with an extension of Free School Meals to all primary school children a priority with 1.2 million children living in poverty currently not receiving free school meals.
In the face of the growing levels of food poverty, the government’s overall objective should be ‘Zero Hunger’ – where everyone has access to an adequate amount of healthy food and where no one goes hungry. However, a starting point has to be ensuring that our children are fed and have access to decent food. At the very least – let them eat lunch.
Fiona Twycross is the London Assembly Labour Group fire spokesperson