Boris Johnson must take drastic action to tackle London’s systemic poverty

The social safety net has failed when parents are unable to feed their children


Jeremy Paxman’s first question when interviewing the Prime Minister during the 2015 General Election campaign was about food bank usage. This highlighted the scale of this growing problem. The election may be over, but for those relying on food banks for their next meal the issue has not gone away.

It is difficult to see how things will improve unless we see an unlikely change of heart by the incoming Conservative government.

Looking at the figures for London alone, there were a record 104,799 visits to Trussell Trust food banks in 2014/15. When these figures are broken down, it reveals 40,043 visits were to support children. This represents parents all over London in the desperate situation of not knowing where their children’s next meal is coming from.

In 2011/12, 4,489 of the allocations of emergency food aid were on behalf of children. This was already too many, but the 2014-15 figures effectively represent a 792% rise in the emergency provision by food banks for children since 2011/12 in London.

So what responsibility does the mayor of London have for tackling this? Well, quite a bit. In 2013 the Mayor launched his 2020 Vision for London. I had just led an investigation into food poverty in London which resulted in a report with cross party support from the London Assembly called ‘A Zero Hunger City: Tackling Food Poverty in London’.

As a result of my recommendations, the mayor incorporated a ‘Zero Hunger’ pledge into his 2020 vision. This centred on the priority of ensuring that no child goes to school hungry by 2020, as well as a wider commitment to eliminating all hunger and reliance on emergency food aid in the capital.

To mark the two year anniversary of the publication of the ‘Zero Hunger City’ report, I released a follow up film in March of this year that documented the continuing rise of food poverty. It highlights the reasons behind food poverty as complex, and stem from factors such as low-paid work, underemployment and changes to benefits.

If the Zero Hunger pledge by Boris Johnson is to achieve anything, then drastic action is needed. The Trussell Trust figures make it very clear that reliance on emergency food aid is increasing year on year and is showing no sign of abating, just 5 years away from the 2020 target.

As a society if we cannot ensure that our children are fed, then the safety net we have in place is clearly not working. Initiatives such as Magic Breakfast which provides school children with free and healthy breakfasts are welcome. But you cannot address the issue of hunger without addressing the root cause.

Therefore tackling poverty and poverty pay and continuing to highlight the unfairness and inefficiencies in the benefit system is vital. This is part of the need to recognise that hunger is being caused by systemic problems.

I have been keen to stress the need to imagine and aim for a future without food banks. Fulfilling the ‘Zero Hunger’ pledge offers an opportunity to achieve this future and ensure that food banks, and the emergency provision they provide, do not become entrenched in our society or into the lives of our children.

The report by the All Party Investigation in to Hunger and Food Poverty came up with an extensive list of ways to tackle the issue. The current mayor and the mayoral candidates for the 2016 election need to meet the Zero Hunger pledge. It is all very well making pledges, but Londoners need action.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour London Assembly member. Follow her on Twitter @fionatwycross

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