Dr Dave Beck, The University of Salford
The single most significant cause of food insecurity reflects the low levels of social security, particularly since the start of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which has only become heightened since the introduction of Universal Credit. However, this needs to be also set within the wider context as food insecurity now also affects millions of people who do not fully rely upon the social security system. The cost of living is outstripping even the average wage in the UK, plunging many families into the ‘Just About Managing’ (JAM) category.
The underlying trend is that modern food insecurity stems from a combination of reduction to the amount available through social security due to the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and the rising cost of living. This has had both profound and substantial impact where these changes have resulted in reduced financial amounts for certain vulnerable groups in society (those in receipt of out of work social security, in receipt of disability assistance, larger families etc.).
The rise of emergency food aid organisations such as; food banks; PAYF Cafés; Social Supermarkets; food redistribution charities are all evident of a downward trend for security and a deleterious trend in food insecurity.
However, the rise of food insecurity is just one symptom of the larger problem that is the rise of poverty in the UK. Organisations such as Shelter and Crisis note the rise in evictions and issues in both the private and the social housing sector; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation note the rise of both poverty and, worryingly destitution; the NHS note the rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and rickets, all of which are associated with food insecurity and poor nutritional health.
The start of modern food insecurity really goes back to the name change of social security in the late 1970s early 1980s when social security became discussed, politically, as welfare/benefits highlighting them to be more of a supplement, instead of a right (in times of need). This change created a moral contamination of those who received ‘benefits’, as this term now becomes further contaminated with disdain (from middle-income groups) as the name welfare/benefit becomes associated more easily with ‘scroungers’. More recently, this idea has been propelled with a further contamination, albeit purposely through a ‘poverty porn’ making the implementation of political reforms on an apathetic electorate easier. Political apathy has creeped in because of the pull towards the central politics of neoliberalism of Thatcher and New Labour, and a distaste for a working-class identity and working-class collectivism. The incoming Coalition government of 2010 knew they needed to reignite the electorate so as to fend-off the rising tide of popularism headed by the likes of UKIP and the BNP. Instead of making enemies out of the popularists, they chose to pit the hard-working but ‘just about making it’ people against their struggling neighbours and, because of the loss of the working-class identity, only one of these groups has power. This has served to, in effect blame the struggling for the crimes of the rich and aimed to get the JAMs to boot.
Physically, the rise of food aid organisations are evident of deleterious trend in food insecurity, as they epitomise the physical presence of people who are food insecure. The rise of the food aid has been associated with the introduction of a politically motivated ideology of austerity as the political class pandered to this global elite banking system that played fast and loose with normal people’s money. The need to save £15 billion in welfare was used as a way to sure-up the deficit created by the elite and was plundered from the support system for those least able to complain politically. Since the forced loss of the working-class identity through neoliberalism, this austerity was easy to implement, as collectivism gave rise to individualism, and therefore, left the most vulnerable with no collective support.
As income becomes outstripped by the rising cost of living struggling people are forced to make tough decisions. As income and outgoings are, in the main, fixed, the most elastic part of the budget is the portion that is spent on food. Increasingly, this is being taken from the disposable part of people’s budgets, leaving them with pennies until the next pay date. During times of real need people resort to mechanisms by which they can make this disposable income stretch as far as possible. To do so, they resort to providing food for themselves/families by making choices which exemplify their experience of poverty and food insecurity. Following the exhaustion of management strategies, such as visiting family (should they not be in the same position) families, mother and fathers will start to what I have termed ‘shop down the shelves’, whereby they will exchange their usual choice of food for a similar item which is less expensive. However, we know that these are ones where the more expensive ingredients have been replaced with cheaper alternatives such as salt, fat and sugars to ensure that profits can be retained by the producers. Further to this, the next stage may see families buying less healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables, as they are less filling and more expensive when compared with a high sugar alternative which is nutritionally less dense and caries empty calories. For a family that has been living on a diet such as this (even/especially so if provided through a food bank due to long-term use) then this will have an obvious effect on the health of that individual or that child.
This system is creating a timebomb, where we may well expect to see a rise in type 2 diabetes or, a shadow effect in the future of the choices that this government is forcing upon struggling families. People going to work hungry are less likely to be able to reach their full potential and earn a decent wage. Children going to school hungry are less able to reach their full potential and leave a lasting scar on their educational attainment, creating the next generation of struggling adults. Even for a conservative government, this is ridiculously short-sighted.
For people struggling with food healthy food is typically inaccessible. As small independent retailers need to compete with the rising competition of the highly capitalist supermarket chains they are priced out of business. The loss of local retailers is evident of this trend of securing capital in as few hands as possible, and for this profit to be usurped into the capitalist class of London, leaving struggling communities outside of the London bubble scuffling for the crumbs that are left from this unequal dinner table.
The decline of the high street traditionally used by all working-class and middle-class alike was once the mainstay of access to healthy sustainable food. Now, only the most affluent of middle-class areas have access to a healthy and vibrant of High Streets. Driving from Alderly Edge over the weekend back to Bolton, this was apparent. Alderly Edge is littered with wealth from Manchester and Liverpool footballers. Their families are able to make the most of an accessible high street whereby through their wealth they are encouraged and allowed to spend locally. Yet the same is not true for other communities across the UK where wealth has been removed from local people and businesses through capital being sucked to South East.
This creates a physical barrier for the consumption of healthy foods, especially within deprived communities. The loss of local producers and retailers means that food has been concentrated into the hands of the supermarkets. Habitually based in out of town locations, these large shops are able to provide food at discount prices (good) however, you also need to be able to get there to take advantage of this. An answer can be found in the re-localisation of some supermarket chains branching out into local suburbs. However, these stores operate at a poverty premium, forcing the poorer constituents to have to pay more, simply because they cannot take advantage of the bargains offered from larger supermarkets.
Existing local convenience stores (either independently run or as part of a franchise) neither have the bargaining power nor the ability to be able to offer similar prices, and are, at times, even more expensive than the local version of the supermarket. Added to this, these shops also form part of the poverty premium, as they do not stock own-branded goods, so have to sell high valued branded stock and compete with the locally positioned national supermarkets. Access to healthy food within these stores is also sometimes, non-existent, as the cost of buying and storing fresh food infrastructurally maintained as a difficulty. Some shops do not accept Healthy Start Vouchers, and therefore, do not see any such benefit in creating the infrastructure to store fresh fruits and vegetables as they may sell very little, and therefore lose any potential revenue so it in effect becomes a cost to them.
The impact of both rural and urban communities is massive, and perhaps too big and too complex to be given such a small space on this call for evidence. However, in brief; for those experiencing food insecurity access to healthy food is difficult for people living in both rural and urban communities.
Subjectively, there is a shared feeling amongst those from urban locations that people who live in the countryside do so out of pure choice, and therefore, by de facto, must be wealthy enough to do so. The rural idyll may only be available for those who have the wealth to enjoy it. For the remainder, the rural idyll is a fallacy. However, there is a rural poverty premium which needs to be highlighted. People who live rurally typically face similar barriers to those who live in towns and cities, especially as it pertains to access to food.
For rural dwellers, if you don’t drive, there are issues associated with access. Rural bus services have been cut, and for those that still exist, they can be infrequent, crowded and expensive. Shopping at a large supermarket is also out of the question, as it is impossible to carry home the large number of shopping bags via public transport. Sometimes multiple trips may be needed with the extra expense which is incurred. Rural people find themselves living in a food desert, which has a strange subjective feeling, especially once we consider that they are living in a place where people once had a great connection to food. They may live in a place where food is produced, yet they lack the accessible means to obtain that food, as farmers now deal directly with large supermarkets. For access to this food through street markets or farmers markets; this can be a weekly, fortnightly or monthly occurrence, and one which has had to fight against the power and dominance of the large supermarkets.
Rural dwellers find themselves compounded by the impact of both food and fuel poverty, as most housing in rural areas is of old stock, especially so since the rapid decline in the production of social housing builds in rural areas. Most rural housing stock is heat inefficient in terms of its insulating capacity and for those who have to depend on off the grid forms of heating, suffer a double blow. The average cost of the poverty premium (weather urban or rural) has been calculated by academics at Bristol University to be around £500 per year extra.
For urban dwellers, a similar form of food desert may be present, however, this, as addressed above, is in the food desert that has become the High Street.
That hunger and food poverty has become normalised.
That hunger and food poverty has become an accepted part of the UK.
That they have become the residual welfare safety-net
Food banks and other emergency food aid providers should play no role in providing food for people within this country. We became an advanced nation when we accepted our part in supporting those who were deemed less-well off in our society and we made their lives easier through the implementation of the welfare state. Attlee, Beveridge and those involved in the Fabians (and the production of the Minority Report) would be turning in their graves if they knew what we had become. When the world’s first food bank was launched in Phoenix Arizona in the late 1960s, it was a protest about food waste combined with a protest about the plight of the hungry and was only supposed to be a temporary remark. This St Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, started over 50 years ago, is still open today, albeit under a new name. Now over 50 years later, it has grown into an empire supported by business and government as an acceptable way to provide people struggling with food. Food that has been redistributed from those who have a choice (the haves) over to those who have no choice (the have nots) due to an ineffective food systems model that puts profit before people. Remember, food is a human right, it has no place in a profit-making system, as with any such capitalist system, there will be winner and losers.
Food banks should be working now within an approach to put themselves out of business. This needs to be seen as a root and branch industry change within the organisations whereby the directors of food banks need to be aiming to work themselves out of their positions. What we have created through the introduction of food banks is a failsafe for the government so that they can now step-back from their responsibility and hand this provision over to the Big Society of volunteers. Well-meaning people who are working in very ineffective ways to support the most vulnerable in society with a sticky-plaster approach, whilst the government gives itself a pat on the back for a job well done shoring-up their friends who caused the banking crisis.
Food banks, their suppliers and their referring partners, plus civil society, academics, and local officials should divert their energy away from supporting the inefficient self-perpetuating system which emergency food aid has become. We should be revolting, protesting and holding the government to account for its inability to be able to provide its own people with safe, adequate and acceptable access to healthy, nutritious food. We should not accept food banks as the new normal, or we will be in the same situation as North America by the end of the next decade whereby food aid is part of society. We should remember that food poverty and food banks have no place in the UK.
Food, as with many things is now held as a commodity, instead of something that is essential to human survival, and thus, it is now part of the capitalist system. This capitalist system is riddled with conflict, as people’s abilities to be able to compete within it are positioned against people’s abilities to be able to compete financially. For those at the bottom of the income distribution, they are forced to compete within a system that, yet have the financial inability to do so with any effect.
Supermarkets, as they have dominated almost every single wish and need for people on their shopping experience are now in such a strong position that; if you can only afford to buy the least healthiest options from their vast array of products, they are also they place that can sell you the remedy to you poverty driven illness. Through the largest of supermarkets, you can buy the very cures to the symptoms of poverty, ill-health and poor diets as most supermarkets now contain a pharmacy. Not just that, my local Tesco has a hairdresser, a tyre changing section, hand car wash, barbers, Timpson’s, currency exchange and a Holland and Barrett’s. why would anyone need to visit a high street anymore!
Supermarkets, as discussed above have cornered the financial rewards of maintaining strict divisions between the diets of the winners and losers within this capitalist system. However, for people who struggle to get to a supermarket, the fast-food delivery service is there to provide, or at least supplement what can be bought through other, less efficient channels than a supermarket. For the concerned, these are also places, where the staff are employed on precarious zero-hour contracts, minimum wage with no guaranteed hours, existing within the Gig Economy. These people too suffer the consequences of the very same poor diet which they are transporting. But this is not their fault, they too are the victims of an inefficient system that rewards people at the top and holds down people at the bottom.
There is a social stigma, especially so for school children. Social exclusion and bullying are creating a future with the next generation of adults with mental health (and physical health) issues, some of which is associated with parent’s ability to be able to shop and chose food like everyone else.
Children previously were singled out if they are seen at school with the Tesco value packet of crisps, now the same is true if they are seen with the food bank provided lunchbox item (food banks use an internal date labelling system whereby dates of products are written on items – usually tinned products with a permanent marker). This sends immediate signals to people that this food has been provided by a food bank.
Advertising, either through media or through packaging on the shelves is well known to be used to stimulate the minds of children into pestering parents into becoming consumers. Product placement too helps stimulate impulse purchases. However, in the means of hiding poverty from within their own peer groups, people will opt to maintain the status of themselves (through a fear of a loss of the valued-self) by making sure that they also have similar products of what is normally expected i.e. people aim to hide their poverty because of an understanding of ‘relative poverty’ (Townsend, 1979), whereby they are forced to keep up with the Joneses. This same is true, but more viciously applied to children, and parents feel the pressure to protect their children, by making sure they ‘fit-in’.
Cut their profit margins.
Government should consider nationalising food production, or at least a nationalised retail option should be grown. It is in the national interest to provide healthy food to people as this will help to maintain healthy lives, and therefore, reduce dependence upon the NHS. At the moment, the NHS is firefighting. Wouldn’t it be much easier if the hard-work was done upstream (through a healthy, nationalised supermarket), before the problems of poor diet flow downstream to the NHS!
As above, a nationalised retail provider would have links with national farming and provisions for crops. This would force us to be self-sufficient and would grow a healthy agro-environmental sector.
With the pending issue of a no-deal Brexit, and the threat of large USA Based multinational agro-corporations providing much more of our food (either directly/indirectly) now is very much the time to shore-up our ability to be self-sustainable.
Yes, if this is done with equity and sustainability in mind, and not profit as the main driver. Adopting a ‘Food First’ approach, instead of profit.
First, I would argue that it is important that the debates regarding food waste and food poverty be kept separate. One is not the solution to the other.
As a food poverty and policy academic I see the recent announcement by Michael Gove’s office to support the redistribution of food waste (combined within the package of £15 million), aiming to up the amount from 43,000 tonnes of surplus food, to an estimated 100,000 tonnes, again is a sticking plaster solution to two problems. However, this time, one plaster is aiming to fix two wounds.
The projected estimate for 250 million meals per year is anticipated to be provided through the redistribution of this surplus food. But let’s not forget, this is food that someone decided was not adequate to be sold. This is food that someone (the capitalist supermarket) decided was not worthy enough for them to make serious profit, so they decide to dump it on the poor. Let’s also not forget, that in dumping this just about edible food on the poor also means that these giant supermarkets a), get to save money on not having to pay for it to be landfilled, b) look good whilst doing so. Corporate social responsibility is at the helm of this decision, and the supermarkets seem to be exerting their power over the government.
Would it not be more sustainable, and more socially acceptable to force through reform to the capitalist food system that has brought us to this situation? We have an imbalance or provision vs capital loss. We also have an imbalance of provision vs privation, and one is not the cure for the other, or this becomes left-over food for left-behind people.
The introduction of a universal basic income and universal basic provision should be seriously considered. By providing people with the foundation to compete within a capitalist economy, everyone needs to have the material goods to do so. This means fiscal means. By introducing a serious basic income and basic provision those at the bottom would be immediately lifted out of both material and subjective poverty and social exclusion would be drastically reduced. They would be able to participate in socially normalised practices. People would have the flexibility to spend time with their children and develop them socially, not have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to keep food on the table. People would have the time to develop themselves too, learn to play an instrument, further their education, and in the future become net contributors to a strong and stable social security system, providing real social security to all. All this whilst still having employment. Pension contributions would rise, productivity would rise, and poverty and food bank use would be eliminated, overnight. Health issues associated with poverty would be drastically reduced almost overnight.
This constitutes as an unprecedented approach, as rightly this system would have to be funded through a serious tax system. Yet, this time, the balance would be in favour of the majority, those who want to (and will in the future) contribute, instead of the minority, as it is now, those who do not want to contribute, and make this know through off-shoring their tax affairs and businesses. Trickle-down economics has been proved to not work. If it did, then no one would be in poverty as the money and jobs would have trickled down! Instead, it created unprecedented amounts of wealth for the few and lay to waste the remaining many.
This also need to be seriously considered as we approach the next industrial revolution in AI and computer involvement in industry. Many more industrial and working-class jobs are being eradicated due to the inclusion of AI technology, however, due to individualism of attitudes (as a result of neoliberalism) the luddites will not be revolting this time. Instead, they will just be blaming the ‘other’ for taking the jobs that remain, creating further division and entrenching themselves further into poverty and despair.
Research by several academics and civil society organisations is constantly ongoing. The production of research reports, collection of both qualitative and quantitative evidence forms many postgraduate dissertations and PhD theses. So, too does a similar amount of work go into the production of postdoctoral research work undertaken by many colleagues across the UK HE institutions. Yet, are they listened too?
As I have examined above, the food policies of North America supported the redistribution of food to poorer people from the late 1960s, and they are still doing this now. The biggest lesson we can learn from this is to NOT follow the USA/Canadian system of food banking. We need to be looking at a better way to provide. One that instils dignity and respect into those struggling.