Hungry for change: food insecurity in the wake of the crisis

The politics of the financial crisis have generated rising and unacceptable levels of hunger in advanced societies

Sebastien-RiouxThe only things that seem to be growing in the UK and US economies these days are hunger and food insecurity. The growth of food banks and other forms of hunger-relief charities is a strong reminder of the ‘pseudo-recovery’ we are in and that the financial crisis hasn’t gone away. It was first shifted on to governments in the form of a sovereign debt crisis. With states now balancing their budgets through austerity measures, the crisis is mutating yet again, this time in the form of a growing subsistence crisis. And, as banks post record profits, another type of bank is thriving:  the food bank.

Over 13 million people in the UK (about 1 in 5) live below the poverty line. According to a recent survey for Tesco, the Trussell Trust and FareShare, a staggering 30% of UK adults have either skipped meals, gone without food to feed their family or relied on relatives or friends for food during the last year, whilst 40% of UK households have grown more food insecure over that period.  With growing numbers of people having to choose between heating and eating, food banks are reporting that increasing numbers of people are returning food items that need to be heated, as they cannot afford the associated energy cost.

The Trussell Trust, a charity dedicated to providing food in the UK, reported a 170% increase in the number of people who have turned to its food banks over the last 12 months. The number of people receiving a minimum of three days emergency food more than doubled between 2010-11 (61,468) to 2011-12 (128,697). The organisation helped 346,992 people in 2012-13, more than a third of which were children. To keep up with demand, the charity is launching three new food banks every week, and now runs over 400 food banks across the UK.

FareShare, a national charity that redistributes surplus food to local charities, is also rapidly growing. In March 2013 the organisation was feeding 43,700 people a day through 910 local charities (a 26% increase). Since April, the FareShare Community Food Network has grown to over 1,000 members and helps 51,000 people every day. Similarly, the Sikh Federation UK estimates serving around 5,000 meals to non-Sikhs each week.

Food insecurity in the US has also increased in the wake of the crisis. The number of food insecure individuals in the US rose sharply between 2007 and 2009 – from 36.2 million to 50.2 million. By 2012 there were 49 million food insecure people in the US, representing 15.9% of the population. The number of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the new federal Food Stamp Program – increased from 17.2 million in 2000 to 44.8 million in 2011.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that only 72% of those eligible to participate in the SNAP in 2009 were enrolled, a recent overview of the programme by the Congressional Budget Office revealed that the majority of SNAP programme participants lived in households with very low income, on average US$8,800 per year in 2010. One-fifth or more of the child population in 40 states and Washington D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2009. In 2010, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program.

As in the UK, growing hunger in the US is largely being met through private charity—not state economic policy.  In 2009, ‘Feeding America’ – a nationwide network of member food banks and emergency kitchens – served 37 million different people, an increase of 46% since 2005. Of them, a staggering 14 million children were served. ‘Feeding America’ also reported that 36% of its clients were from households with one or more adults employed, illustrating the dire and corporeal reality of labour market restructuring. Again, just as in the UK, many food insecure households reported having to choose between food and other necessities, such as paying for utilities, heating fuel, or rent.

In these and other advanced capitalist societies, the rise of hunger is closely related to the growing numbers of the working poor—or those who are employed but still unable to meet basic needs. By 2009 in the US, nearly one in three (30.1%) working families earned less than 200% of the official poverty line. For these families, unexpected expenses, sickness or temporary unemployment are sufficient to shake dramatically an already fragile financial situation.

In the context of fiscal crisis among many states, the pressure to enact policies contributing to deficit reduction and reduce overall spending in social security and nutritional programmes is increasing precisely at a time when the demand for, and therefore the costs of, such programmes is rising. These measures will entrench poverty and hunger even further.

While benefit delays, rising living costs and benefit changes are often named as the causes behind the surge in the number of people turning to food banks, high food prices and reduced benefit payments do not constitute a crisis in and of themselves. The root cause of rising hunger amidst plenty lies in stagnant and declining real wages, unemployment and underemployment.  There is a need for far more political economy analysis of these issues if we are to reposition hunger as a key measurement for recovery and growth.

The displacement of the 2008 financial crisis on to governments represents a financial coup d’état, the consequence of which is that more and more of our relatives, friends and neighbours are paying an unacceptable price – being hungry and experiencing heightened food insecurity. We surely need a strong interventionist state that can implement social and economic reforms capable of transforming the minimum wage into a living rather than a poverty wage, combatting unemployment and underemployment, and reinforcing and expanding the social safety net.

With nearly 870 million people suffering from chronic hunger globally in 2010-12, growing food insecurity in advanced capitalist countries highlights the uneven, yet global, nature of the current subsistence crisis. Wall Street has made it extremely clear that it will not pay for the economic crisis it created. We too must refuse to pay the bill through poverty and hunger. As A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi has convincingly argued, people are hungry for change.