In one of the richest countries in the world, food poverty and hunger are a reality…
The Department of Health defines food poverty as “the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet”.(1)
I first became aware of the extent of food poverty last year when I met a shop worker at a supermarket who wanted to eat well, but could not afford, despite staff discounts, to buy healthy food. After devising a free e-book about healthy eating on a budget (2), I worked out you can eat well for under £20/week – although meals have to be cooked from scratch – this means time, ability to cook and cooking equipment are essential. The e-book received a high viewing rate and I realised it had hit a nerve. Others have since demonstrated how to survive on even less.(3)
Let them eat cake?
Despite cookery programmes, home cooking has declined. Convenience food is heavily promoted in supermarkets, whereas BOGOF offers for broccoli are harder to find! Popular choices during the austerity period are cheap fillers high in sugar, fat and salt and additives, but they also provide comfort value. It seems that when the going gets tough, we lack time, energy and resources to make lentil and vegetable stew, or the appetite for it. Lectures on healthy eating, therefore, are likely to fall on many a deaf ear. More to the point, concerns about long-term or optimal health become irrelevant to those whose only focus is to survive from day-to-day. Comparisons with our grandparents who thrived on well-designed (healthy) rations are unhelpful, because they had no access to junk food and did not have the same choices.
The Facts on Food Poverty
13 million people are currently estimated to be suffering from poverty in the UK, (4) with 4-5 million of these suffering from food poverty.(5) Exact numbers don’t exist as there is no officially recognised measure; only small surveys have been done with small sample sizes in specific areas showing that job losses, rising food and fuel prices and changes to the welfare system have resulted in a rise in food poverty. Many low-income families in crisis are working households, but wages are simply too low for them to survive. The current minimum wage of £6.19/hour is insufficient to cover increasing costs.(6) Oxfam have reported that food prices have increased by 30.5% in the last 5 years – that’s twice the rate of inflation and 2.5 times the rate of increase in the National Minimum Wage.(7)
A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research defined households that spend more than 10% of their annual income on food as suffering food poverty, especially if cutting back on nutritious food.(8) The amount spent on food as a percentage of household income is very high for poorer households with pensioners, low-income and single parent households being hit hardest. Trading down to cheaper products helps higher income groups, but those suffering economic hardship cannot as they already buy the cheapest goods.
Poorer households have cut back on fruit, vegetables and meat, resulting in lower intakes of vitamins, minerals and fibre and the consequences of unmet nutritional needs combined with prolonged stress takes its toll.(9) Poor diets contribute to low birth-weight, depression, obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes. In addition, social isolation, shame, lack of control and hopelessness also lead to a kind of poverty that is less visible, a poverty of the soul. Worryingly, the average yearly household food bill is expected to rise over the next 5 years. People tend to compromise on food spending first, because other basic needs such as rent and fuel have to be met. Food is the flexible item in the household budget – one expense that can be compromised on when no (or not enough) money is coming in.
In March 2013, a report into food poverty in London was commissioned by Fiona Twycross MP.(10) The amount of people visiting foodbanks in the city has tripled in the last year.(11) With one in four Londoners in poverty and more working people struggling to put food on the table, a key conclusion was that affordability and poverty are the main underlying factors, not individual behaviour (i.e. cooking skills, knowledge). Lack of funds and availability of healthy food in certain areas appear to be driving unhealthy food choices in those who live on the breadline.
Vulnerable groups – children and the elderly
Children are at particular risk. In 2012, Netmums surveyed over 2000 members to find out how the recession was affecting them. They discovered a quarter of families living on credit cards, and 1 in 5 mothers skipping meals so their children could eat.(12) Another recent survey, ‘Lost Education’ found that teachers have seen an increase in children sent to school without breakfast, and pupils falling asleep through a lack of food or drink, potentially affecting their exam results and future potential.(13) It is worrying that average blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in UK schoolchildren are already too low14 – whilst intake of sugar is too high, setting children up for a lifetime of physical and mental health problems.(15)
Organisations for the elderly are also reporting increasing problems. The elderly cannot rely on foodbanks as they may not be able to travel or carry food home. High levels of malnutrition in the elderly have been reported in the community and on admission to hospital. BAPEN warned seven years ago that malnutrition was affecting over 10% of older people aged 65 and over.(16)
A foodbank is a non-profit organisation that receives food donations (including food that would otherwise go to landfill) from the food industry or public to distribute to those in need.
The Trussell Trust, the largest provider of foodbanks in the UK, estimates that half a million people are currently relying on food aid. Other foodbanks or food distributers include Fareshare, Feeding the 5000, This is Rubbish, Speak with your mouth full and Food Donation Connection. Other emergency food aid providers include churches of all faiths, charities, housing associations and community groups.
The Trussell Trust is a charity that provides 3 days of food to people in crisis. Foodbank clients receive up to three consecutive foodbank vouchers, although longer term support is available at the discretion of the foodbank manager. Foodboxes contain at least three days’ supply of non-perishable foods such as tinned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish as well as pasta, cereal, UHT milk, sauces, tea and long life juice. The Trussell Trust works with dieticians to ensure that foodboxes are nutritionally balanced. As well as providing emergency food, foodbanks also signpost clients to other agencies able to help resolve the underlying cause of the crisis. The Trussell Trust has launched over 380 foodbanks every week. Sourced from www.trusseltrust.org.
The most common reason for visiting foodbanks is benefit delay, reduction or withdrawal, followed by low income. Other reasons are delayed wages, domestic violence, sickness, increasing levels of underemployment, unemployment, debt, refused crisis loans, homelessness, rising food and fuel prices and the absence of free school meals during school holidays. Less than 5% of recipients are homeless, and a third are children.
A recent report by Oxfam is calling for an investigation into the relationship between the benefits system and food poverty. (17) The imminent introduction of Universal Credit which requires internet access and makes payments less often may lead to an increasing number of people being forced to turn to foodbanks. There is debate whether foodbanks are becoming ‘entrenched’ and however valuable they may be short-term, they cannot solve the underlying causes of food poverty.
Incentives for healthier choices
The overall rise in food and fuel prices reduce living standards among low-income groups as they have to spend more on food and more on travel to access the basics. I spoke to Professor Martin Caraher from the Centre of Food Policy at City University. He explained that the main priority for most people is not nutritional content, but to put food on the table: “it’s not nutrition that’s the issue, it is hunger. Therefore, public policy approaches which focus on skills ignore the determinants of food choice which are material deprivation.” Caraher expects food poverty to rise over the next 3-5 years, with poverty and inequality increasing, leading to family breakdown and potentially, community breakdown. “There is no food policy for the country – we only have 3 days in hand if there is a crisis.”
I asked him what he thinks about a scheme in the US that restricts foodstamp purchases of junk foods and instead provides bonuses for healthy purchases such as fruit and vegetables.(18) Caraher thinks many people dislike the idea of foodstamps as they create stigma. He suggests providing people with a disposable short-term swipe-card which entitles them to healthier food items only.
A voucher scheme supporting the increase of fruit and vegetable consumption (similar to the US idea mentioned above) is being funded by the Alexandra Rose Charities and run by Food Matters, a social enterprise working to create fairer, more sustainable food systems.(19) Project director Victoria Williams is developing a pilot project in London boroughs to improve the health of low-income families who are recipients of the government’s Healthy Start scheme. Victoria says the most effective way to reduce food poverty and inequality longterm is to ensure everybody has access to education, a living wage and adequate housing. This project hopes to determine whether using vouchers as a motivational tool to support diet and health-related behaviour changes could be an effective way to support families.
“The new poverty is one in five families living below the poverty line, putting them at risk of food poverty. Over 4 million children are at risk and 4 million suffer from serious nutrient related health problems. People still go hungry but the outcomes of food poverty are as likely to be overweight and obesity as hunger. Also, it is the same groups that are hungry and also obese.” Professor Martin Caraher, Centre of Food Policy, City University.
If then, the root cause of food insecurity is poverty, how do we tackle it and encourage better food choices? The most obvious answers include:
- reducing benefit delays
- implementing a coherent UK-wide food policy
- implementing a living wage
- restricting unhealthy food outlets
- making affordable healthy food more available
- controlling the advertising of junk food
- improving the ‘quality’ of junk food
- providing community meals (meals on wheels) to support the ageing population
- universal school meals
The School Food Plan, published in July by the Department for Education, is encouraging self-sustaining breakfast clubs.(20) However, funding is required for these as well as for meals during school holidays. A novel idea was recently proposed by Sustain – to fund universal school meals via a duty on sugary drinks.(21)
A number of community food projects across the UK are currently getting people to grow, cook and eat affordable, locally-grown food. The aim is to cut food costs and improve nutritional quality for people on low-incomes. Some areas have a food strategy in place and local work is being done to establish healthy, sustainable and affordable food systems.
Brighton, where I live, is being used as a model to address social, economic and environmental problems, including food poverty.(22) Brighton & Hove Food Partnership (23) have started some highly successful initiatives. Emily O’Brien, one of the project managers, explains there are two types of food poverty: the first requires crisis management with emergency food aid, the second is the on-going, longer term food poverty. Both require access to information and financial advice. The Food Partnership recognises diet is influenced by many factors and takes a holistic look at food, from community food growing to weight management clinics and basic cooking skills classes. This is a great example of how local organisations, businesses and residents collaborate to raise awareness and create better access to decent food.
Rising fuel and housing costs coupled with reduced benefits are key drivers for food poverty. In times of austerity, policies which increase inequality will increase absolute poverty. The latest policy initiative, the ‘bedroom tax’ has resulted in a spike in rent arrears and is likely to contribute to the numbers of homeless and foodbank queues. The explosive demand for foodbanks is an indicator of the growing divide between rich and poor, and political will is needed to implement an effective UK food policy and counter the potential for people in need to be demonised or ignored.
From my personal perspective, there is a danger that we are, without necessary change in our political culture, playing around the margins of the food poverty problem. Deals with multinationals to pay little or no taxes in the UK despite profits measured in billions, are the norm, whilst governments blame those on benefits who have suffered the worst for causing austerity.
This has to be a wake-up call to challenge the corporate agenda and insist on much tougher regulations regarding food quality and promotion.
“Got a one-way ticket
To the promised land
You got a hole in your belly ..
.. and a gun in your hand.”
(from ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ by Bruce Springsteen, longtime supporter of food banks)
- Breadline Britain series, The Guardian, www.guardian.co.uk/society/series/breadline-britain
- N. Cooper & S. Dumpleton, Walking The Breadline: The Scandal of Food Poverty in 21st Century Britain, Oxfam GB/Church Action on Poverty
- A Zero Hunger City, Tackling Food Poverty in London, March 2013. London Assembly Survey, 2012, www.london.gov.uk/zero-hunger
- Food Justice, The report of the Food and Fairness Inquiry, http:// www.foodethicscouncil.org/foodjustice
- The future of food, www.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/call-for-more-action-to-restore-confidence-in-food
- The Perfect Storm: Economic Stagnation, the rising cost of living, public spending cuts and impact on UK poverty (Oxfam, 2012)
- Hard to Swallow, The Facts about Food Poverty, Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), March 2013
- A Lost Education, The reality of hunger in the classroom, Kellogg’s, September 2013
1. Choosing a better diet: a food and health action plan, Department of Health, 2005
4. ‘Households Below Average Income’, DWP, June 2012: http://research.dwp.gov. uk/asd/index.php?page=hbai
5. The Food Ethics Council, www.foodethicscouncil.org/topic/Food%20poverty
7. The Perfect Storm: Economic Stagnation, the rising cost of living, public spending cuts and impact on UK poverty (Oxfam, 2012)
8. Hard to Swallow, The Facts about Food Poverty, Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), March 2013
9. The true cost of cuts, The New Scientist, No 2912, 11.4.2013
10. A Zero Hunger City, Tackling Food Poverty in London, March 2013. London Assembly Survey, 2012, www.london.gov.uk/zero-hunger
13. A Lost Education, The reality of hunger in the classroom, Kellogg’s, September 2013
14. Montgomery P, Burton JR, Swewll RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ (2013). Low blood long chain omega-3 fatty acids in UK children are associated with poor cognitive performance and behaviour: a cross-sectional analysis from the DOLAB Study. PLoS One. 8(6):e 66697
15. Simopoulos AP (2013) Dietary omega-3 Fatty Acid deficiency and high fructose intake in the development of metabolic syndrome, brain metabolic abnormalities, and non-alcoholic Fatty liver disease. Nutrients.26;5(8):2901-23
16. BAPEN (formally known as the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition), Malnutrition among Older People in the Community: Policy Recommendations for Change, 2006
17. N. Cooper & S. Dumpleton, Walking The Breadline: The Scandal of Food Poverty in 21st Century Britain, Oxfam GB/Church Action on Poverty
18. Food stamps could help US trim obesity epidemic, The New Scientist, No. 2928, 3.8.2013
21. A Children’s Future Fund – How food duties could provide the money to protect children’s health and the world they grow up in, Jan 2013, http://www.sustainweb. org/publications/?id=263
Article first published in BANT newsletter issue 53, October 2013 (c) Martina Watts 2013