In an important month for food poverty action has been promised, but the policy problem is still unclear
The last month has been a seminal one for bringing forward new evidence and generating possible policy responses concerning the problem of rising levels of hunger in the UK. In November, some of the most powerful and high profile voices in anti-poverty and food charity work, including the Church of England, Oxfam UK, Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust, launched a report into understanding and reducing the use of food banks in the UK – ‘Emergency Use Only’. Two and a half weeks later and just a few days after the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement, the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain launched its findings and recommendations.
These reports are ground-breaking in three ways. Firstly, they provide a unique amount of evidence into hunger in the UK, which has hitherto been an under-researched field. The ‘Emergency Use Only’ report draws on data from over 1,100 food-bank clients and the Parliamentary Inquiry received over 400 pieces of oral and written evidence. These reports thus represent a significant step forward in our knowledge about hunger and food-bank use.
Secondly, they symbolise a public acknowledgement of the will to address the issue of hunger. The rise of food banks has been a contested and politically heated issue ever since the phenomenon rose to prominence a few years ago and these reports make clear the commitment of key stakeholders in the voluntary and community sector and – for the first time – in government too to work towards a ‘zero hunger Britain’.
Thirdly, these reports outline actionable recommendations designed to reduce the need for emergency help to obtain food from projects such as food banks. These include particularly important suggestions around raising incomes and enabling a more effective social security system. The Parliamentary report outlines recommendations which seek both long-term and short-term change. It contains numerous measures (approximately 19 out of a total of 77) aimed at facilitating socio-economic shifts in respect of wage levels and the costs of living (particularly food, fuel and housing) designed to enable people to afford food and other essential costs. Both the Parliamentary and ‘Emergency Use Only’ reports also dedicate a significant proportion of their recommendations (around 40 and 99 per cent respectively) to the social security system. These recommendations are detailed in nature and relate to ways in which continuity of income can be promoted and provision (particularly crisis provision) strengthened.
Yet what is still lacking in all of this analysis and prescription is clarity over the exact nature of the overarching policy problem and the specific ways in which these recommendations would address it.
In its opening paragraphs the Parliamentary inquiry report does acknowledge the lack of precision around the problem at hand, but it then claims that spending time on better understanding it conceptually ‘would not match the urgency that we feel over a number of our fellow citizens going hungry’. Whilst a rush to action brought about by this moral imperative is understandable, it must also be realised that, if the policy problem is not clearly articulated, effective policy responses could well be hindered.
How, then, should we frame the problem? The concept of ‘food poverty’ is the most insightful. It addresses centrally people’s ability to participate actively in a socially embedded food culture – to shop, cook, eat and socialise through food in the way socially accepted standards of living assume.
Employing such a policy concept has several key benefits. Firstly, it highlights different layers within these experiences, notably chronic and acute experiences both of which require distinct responses. Secondly, it enables structural determinants and possible points for policy intervention to be identified. For example, how much money do people have (which raises the issue of in-work and out-of-work income)? Can they get to shops selling a good variety of affordably priced healthy food (which is about retail and transport infrastructure)? And can they store and cook their food when they return home (which draws attention to housing adequacy)?
Just as importantly, however, clearer articulations of the policy problem at hand will also facilitate a better understanding of what the problem is not. A handful of recommendations from the Parliamentary Inquiry make reference to levels of food waste and the role redistribution could play in supplying charitable provision. Food waste and food poverty are both undeniably symptoms of dysfunctional food and socio-economic systems. But they are distinct policy problems and should not be conflated. Certainly, one (waste food) should not be seen as a way to overcome the other (food poverty).
Other recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry concerning emergency food provision, and indeed the very title of the Inquiry report itself (‘Feeding Britain’), also imply that the best response to acute experiences lies in further embedding charitable emergency food provision. Again, although these initiatives are important sites of care and solidarity in local communities, the concept of ‘food poverty’ actually works to highlight the fact that the determinants of acute experiences, and therefore their prevention and alleviation, lie elsewhere: with core questions of adequate income and effective social security.
In sum, both of the major reports published in the last few weeks provide important recommendations for action which would help to address acute and chronic experiences of food poverty, including raising wages and improving the social security system. They do move the debate forward. That said, we still need to focus most of all on the large sections of both reports that highlight the need to re-evaluate the adequacy and efficacy of the whole of the UK’s social security system and the wider political-economic structures within which the system is embedded. At root, it is these structures that influence people’s standards of living and ultimately their ability to feed themselves and their families.