The UK is the seventh richest country in the world, yet grotesque levels of inequality keeps rearing its ugly head. Unblemished by austerity, the richest one per cent of Britons own the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population, while one thousand of the richest people in the country have doubled their wealth in the last five years. This disparate pattern is unravelling on a global scale, with the world’s richest people seeing their wealth increase by half a million dollars every minute.
Yet while disproportionate salaries, shameless tax avoidance and a bloated bonus culture furnishes the select elite – hardship, hunger and destitution is a grinding reality for 13 million people in the UK who live below the poverty line.
For four million of these people, food poverty – one of the starkest signs of inequality – blight their daily lives, as they seek the reliance of emergency handouts with visits to food banks across the UK. In a recent report conducted by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, it was calculated that 20,247,042 meals were delivered to people in food poverty by three of the main food providers, The Trussell Trust, FareShare and FoodCycle.
The Trussell Trust (the biggest network of food banks in the UK) alone have seen demand for food aid triple over the last two years, with 913,138 people receiving emergency handouts – 330,205 of these being children. This is only a partial assessment of what’s really going on, as this data does not take into consideration food aid services run by churches or community centres, nor does it quantify the hushed hunger hidden behind closed doors.
The proliferation of food aid over recent years exposes the escalating issue of inequality and masks deeper cracks in society – particularly major flaws in our social security system – that need to be urgently addressed, while at the same time, pointing towards the basic fact, that ever-increasing food prices are stripping people of their basic human right to nourish themselves.
Food prices have risen 30% since 2008, hitting the poorest hardest. But while food poverty grows, so does the amount of food waste, exposing a shameful dichotomy: each year in the UK, 15 million tonnes of food is gratuitously thrown away and taken to landfill, while hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable families are starving or eating inadequately.
For every potato or lamb chop wasted, so too are the resources that were used to produce it. The food system is in overdrive, chasing its own tail to meet the growing demands of a rapidly developing, richer world population, only for one-third of it’s food output to be thrown away. As a result, world food supplies are squeezed, food prices escalate and it’s the poorest that pay.
It would, however, be too simplistic to say that food prices have directly caused the recent increase in food poverty, but it is rather down to a perfect storm of factors – high housing and rising energy costs, debt, unemployment, low, stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hour contracts – have all played a part in forcing the working and unemployed into hard times.
The correlation between welfare changes and cuts and the rise of food poverty is also undeniable and unacceptable, irrespective of recent ministerial denial; “there is no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform”.
The Trussell Trust estimates that 49% of people who are referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan. This hardline system has meant that over 700,000 job seekers have been brutally cast adrift surviving on the bare minimum, for as much as accidently missing an appointment or even because of an administrative error. With their social security support severely disconnected, visiting their local food bank is their only lifeline.
After missing an interview at the jobcentre, Lucy Hill, 35, from Kidderminster, had her disability benefits stopped, leaving her, her partner and her 18-month old baby with nothing to live on. ‘In a desperate situation’ and a baby to feed, she was caught stealing chicken and washing powder from her local Spar and was later fined £200 in a magistrates court.
Although food banks signal a wider failure in society, their commitment in helping people hit by a crisis and alleviating social exclusion is fundamental. There are also many inspiring community-led initiatives, such as FoodCycle – a nationwide volunteer-powered project that intercepts food that would be wasted by shops and supermarkets, saving it from the landfill and transforming it into a healthy, nutritious meals which are then served to the hungry and vulnerable.
Since FoodCycle started in May 2009 they have served over 102,000 meals, made using 119,000kg of reclaimed surplus food by a network of 1,200 volunteers.
While these food initiatives demonstrate a good way of using up food waste and reflect the compassion of the public, they should not be used as a primary solution for feeding the hungry. Nor should food banks be a long-term solution to poverty. They do not provide the income-poor with the varied diet that they need to lead healthy lives, and no amount of wasted or surplus food will provide that. If no ambitious steps are taken by the government to revise their punitive and counterproductive policies, then we are at risk that food banks will become an enduring feature to our welfare landscape.
Upon his visit to the UK, the UN Special Rappaorteur on the right to food, Oliver De Schutter, substantiated this concern, warning that: “food banks are the safety nets of safety nets…Important as they are, they are not a substitute for social policies which protect people”.
The government is failing to protect their citizens from going hungry to the point where the international human rights law is being violated and something needs to be done. As simplistic as it sounds, to combat food poverty there has to be a radical transformation of our system. The social security net that is meant to protect the vulnerable needs to be significantly reformed, operating in a way that represents and safeguards rather than excludes and punishes.
Work and income are the the most important routes out of poverty, so to combat such grotesque inequality, sustainable, secure jobs need to be created, jobs that pay a living wage. By rising the national minimum wage in line with inflation, families will be able to retain the ability to live with dignity and have access to food that is healthy and of a high nutritional quality.
There also has to be a shift in attitude in the way we view and value our food. It is both illogical and immoral that perfectly edible food is chucked away on a vast scale.
But lastly, the government need to get some real world perspective and listen to ordinary people who have been kept out of sight and out of mind, who are on the breadline and in the food bank – people like young mother, Mary;
“I would like people in government to understand, from their little white towers that [homelessness and poverty] even with working people is far more widespread than they actually believe it is… It is getting worse. And then for them to do something about it… to have things in place where they are actually helping people, not isolating people. That’s what they should be doing.”