The scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain

Over the weekend 45,000 people gathered in London’s Hyde Park to demand that G8 leaders take action to end global hunger. The event was part of the ‘Enough Food for Everyone IF’ campaign launched earlier year in response to the growing number of people globally who are experiencing hunger. Just over a mile away from the park are two food banks run by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest network of food aid provision. With over 300 of these banks across the country, and plans to open more, it seems hunger may be an issue closer to home than many might expect.

In 2012, 350,000 people needed help from the Trussell Trust: almost triple the number who received food aid the year before. In reality, the total number of people in the UK now reliant on food banks and parcels may be closer to half a million: Food poverty is on the rise. Food poverty refers to individuals and households that are unable to obtain basic nutritional food.

Photo credit: Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty

These most recent figures were published in a report launched by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty in May 2013: Walking the Breadline – the scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain. The report sheds light on food poverty through a series of case studies. It also investigates how people can still be going hungry in one of the world’s wealthiest countries: the UK is currently ranked seventh in the global rich list.

Unemployment, underemployment, low incomes, and rising food and fuel prices are all listed as reasons for the ongoing reliance on food banks. In Britain, 13 million people (1 in 5) now live below the poverty line. Changes and cuts to the welfare system are also significant. Delays in benefit payments mean people often find themselves without money. With rent and bill payments remaining constant and incompressible, the amount spent on food often takes the first and biggest hit.

The NGOs behind the report are now calling on the UK government to conduct an urgent inquiry into the relationship between welfare changes and cuts, and the growth of food poverty.

But for now, it seems the number of food banks, and those needing them, is likely to grow. On 3 June one of the UK’s four largest supermarkets unveiled a multi-million pound scheme to support food banks. The scheme will see all surplus stock be distributed to food banks, rather than being sent back to the supplier, and most likely thrown away: a step in the right direction for food waste at least. Appproximantely 3 million tonnes of food is wasted by the UK food and drink industy every year.

The Walking the Breadline report highlights that food banks are only a short-term emergency response to the problem of food poverty. They do not address the underlying structural causes. As Olivier De Schutter UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said recently when talking about the issue of food banks in the UK and the developed world:

‘Governments should not be allowed to escape their obligations because private charities make up for their failures.’

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