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Heating up the debate on food poverty

foodbank-map-orangeThe announcement today by the Trussell Trust that in the past six months, the number of people receiving food parcels from them has tripled to over 350,000 is indeed ‘scandalous’. The news last week that the British Red Cross is to start providing food aid to people in Britain is further manifestation of the continuing rise of food poverty in Britain. Despite the evidence, the government continues to fail to acknowledge the scale of the problem of food insecurity yet alone tackle it.

With a survey from Netmums revealing that one in five mothers regularly skip meals to make sure their children eat properly, it is clear that the number of people in Britain who are struggling to put food on the table at the end of the week is much higher. With gas and electricity prices going up, the dilemma of heating or eating will increase further this winter.

We don’t know exactly how many people food poverty affects because it is not measured (not least because the government doesn’t really want to know). Food poverty is a thorny issue for the coalition. The Trussell Trust has called for an inquiry in to the issue. An existing report on UK emergency food commissioned by DefRA from the Food Ethics Council is yet to be published despite the release date having originally been the early summer.

Charities continually cite the impact of welfare reforms as a major contributing factor and ministers continue to deny any link between the rise of foodbanks and their benefit changes. I would hazard a guess that the delay to the DeFRA report is due to the content being unpalatable to ministers and a formal inquiry seems unlikely.

Tory politicians find it easier to portray families and individuals reliant on foodbanks as ‘greedy’ or poor at financial management. The picture of the ‘feckless or reckless poor’ government rhetoric presents means minsters can absolve themselves of responsibility for the shocking rise of poverty.

On their watch, our Labour government’s work addressing child poverty is being undone. The coalition wants voters to imagine that poverty looks like a big TV. They don’t want poverty to look like a child too hungry to concentrate at school or somebody’s granny eeking out her individual portion from meals-on-wheels to last a couple of meals.

The government response to the reports that the Red Cross are going to start providing emergency food aid in the UK was to state that there was no ‘robust’ evidence that the rise of foodbanks is linked to their welfare changes. Their response to today’s announcement that the rise is due to the existence of foodbanks is similarly weak. Our Labour response must be to challenge them on this. It is simply not true as any volunteer in any foodbank could tell them.

On the same day the Red Cross campaign was announced, the UN Committee on World Food Security was meeting in Rome. A side meeting at the event discussed whether the time was right for countries to take up the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge which aims to eradicate hunger in our lifetime. Clearly the focus of the UN’s work on food is not principally on Western Europe but the Zero Hunger Challenge team has welcomed the fact that the debate on food poverty in London is now focussing on this goal.

Given the likely audience at the fringe meeting, I am working on the assumption that there was a consensus that we should be working towards Zero Hunger. Labour should take up this challenge and explicitly sign up to eradicating food poverty and include a range of policies aimed at preventing food poverty on our doorstep. Many of these would be those to address low pay, long-term unemployment and child poverty. But we also need policies specifically on food. So let’s have healthy free school meals for all. Let’s go beyond the coalition’s pledge for infant schools and introduce healthy free school meals first to primary schools but ultimately to all pupils in state funded schools.

Labour pilots and councils have proved the worth of the policy – it not only removes stigma and makes sure all children get at least one hot meal a day, it also improves results. As Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT said – children don’t stop being hungry at the age of seven. And let’s make sure that older and vulnerable people needing support in their own homes no longer suffer from malnutrition because they can’t access adequate food – it is shameful for Britain that this is now the main cause of older people being admitted to hospital.

Emergency food aid on the scale proposed by the Red Cross has to be a temporary aberration. We need to continue to heat up the debate started by Ed Miliband at conference and talk not about what ever increasing living costs mean in practice and identify solutions.  On our watch we should hear reports of foodbanks closed down because they are no longer needed.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour Londonwide Assembly Member and author of the London Assembly report Zero Hunger: Tackling Food Poverty in London

One Comment

  1. Syzygy says:

    I am so angry at the portrayal of ‘families and individuals reliant on foodbanks as ‘greedy’ or poor at financial management.’

    The most expert money-managers are to be found amongst the poorest. They don’t have any choice. As for who is ‘greedy’….!

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