We welcome the more holistic perspective of linking food, poverty, health and the environment. These elements are interrelated and interact in ways that can either compound the problems or provide the solutions. Considering them collectively is the only way we can genuinely tackle the root causes rather than simply the symptoms.
Food insecurity can take two forms: insecurity resulting from the unavailability of food i.e. we simply can’t produce enough to feed ourselves; insecurity resulting from the inaccessibility of food, i.e. the food can be produced but we can’t get access to it for whatever reason, often financial.
Never before in human history have we been able to produce such an abundance of food. We have more than enough to ensure that not a single person ever goes hungry. Therefore, the unavailability of food is not the issue.
The issue then comes down to accessibility. While hunger and famine have always been with us in some form or other, in more recent times it exists because of economic inequality and injustice. Africa, for example, is an incredibility resource-rich and bountiful continent. But the aftermath of colonisation along with contrived and crippling debt has left it devastated by a host of socio-economic problems, including famine and hunger. For the last hundred years or more, the West has been largely protected from food poverty. The majority of us have experienced times of plenty, with few suffering from malnutrition or starvation.
The question begs to be asked: why, now, in the early twenty-first century are we seeing a level of food poverty that has resulted in the proliferation of foodbanks, the demand for which can barely be met? The evidence for this is widely available, for example, from the Trussell Trust, Fareshare and the Child Poverty Action Group. The need for foodbanks is a deeply disturbing and retrograde step for our society.
The answer is obvious: austerity, especially the welfare cuts. Austerity is a policy choice, it’s not an inevitability. Current government policies are choosing to take more money and more public services away from ordinary people. Welfare ‘reform’, cuts to benefits, the benefits freeze, cuts to education and health services, the low-wage gig economy, all of these policies are driving people into destitution: foodbanks, rent arrears, debt, evictions and homelessness, not to mention the impact this hardship has on physical and mental health, on family relationships, on the most vulnerable including children. Austerity is taking money out of people’s pockets, leaving them with less and less to live on. It’s no coincidence that in areas where Universal Credit had fully rolled out, use of food banks has increased by 52%.
Meanwhile, little or nothing is done to recoup the £billions lost each year to tax debt and regressive taxation policies. Austerity is discriminate, it’s targeted at those of us who can least withstand it.
The central question of this inquiry, how to make a healthy, sustainable diet accessible and affordable for everyone, is a problem too deep-rooted and too pervasive to be addressed by tweaking the system so that it’s a little less painful. Because the problem is complex with multiple component parts (food, poverty, health, environment and policy), it cannot be tackled using simple solutions. Rather it needs solutions that recognise the complexity.
Foodbanks alone are not a solution. Apart from being a short-term fix to prevent immediate hunger, the best they can offer is evidence that something’s wrong and that austerity is an outrage. Charity alone is not a solution. People have a human right to food and a society with chronic food poverty has to address that problem in ways that don’t expect those in need to take handouts.
Healthy eating and healthy lifestyle programmes alone are not a solution. These programmes certainly do have a role in raising awareness. But they can imply that ‘poor’ people are living unhealthy lives because they don’t budget properly or because they choose not to eat good food or because they don’t know any better. These programmes tend to ignore the fact that healthy clean food such as organic produce and fresh fruit and veg is much more expensive and out-of-reach for people on low incomes than processed high-sugar-high-fat-high-salt foods. For too many people, eating healthy is beyond their budget despite being aware of what’s healthy.
Holiday hunger schemes alone are not a solution. They give valuable respite to parents during the long summer holidays and they ensure children have something to eat but long-term they are an indicator of a society with deep problems.
Food waste is a huge environmental problem, not to mention a travesty when so many are going hungry. The idea that the food supermarkets would ordinarily waste is instead sent to foodbanks, on its own, is not a solution. On the surface, it appears to be a tidy solution and it does have flaws. When it comes to food waste, we should remember that reducing waste is the optimal situation. Reducing food waste should be all our responsibility and more work is needed to make that happen and to raise awareness.
There is ample research available from academics, C&V sector organisations and public bodies on the links between poverty, food insecurity, health inequalities and the sustainability of food production. Unfortunately, this research isn’t being acted upon and isn’t being used often enough, or deeply enough, to inform decision making. We have many problems but we have solutions to all of these problems. The real question is whether we have the political will.
A range of solutions, operating symbiotically, can go a long way towards making a healthy, sustainable diet accessible and affordable for everyone. Some of these solutions might be:
Advice NI Policy Team
Kevin Higgins (Head of Policy)
11 September 2019