By Shivalee Patel, Eleni Iacovidou and Dr Manoj Dora
03 Jun 2019
Poverty is a daily reality for 14 million people in the UK, even though it is the world’s fifth richest economy. Food poverty, defined as “the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet”, impacts a soaring number of children and adults. Child poverty in the UK is a social calamity and an economic disaster. The probability of experiencing food insecurity - having no reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable nutritious food - has almost doubled in 12 years among those with low incomes, to 46% in 2016.
Statistics also suggest that almost 60% of people in poverty earn a wage, which challenges the notion that employment can alleviate poverty as emphasised in the UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17. This year, the legal wage increased from £7.83 to £8.21 per hour for those over 25 years old, but is still short of the real living wage. London weighting is not included in the legal wage, so not reflective of the true cost of living which is £9.00 per hour across the UK and £10.55 per hour in London. The problem is that as wages remain low and food prices go up, people are less able to afford food.
In 2018, a UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, concluded that “poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”. In reality, there is a huge gap in policymakers’ understanding of real-life family poverty, despite the UK government’s commitment to end hunger through improved nutrition and sustainable farming, as described in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Some may suggest that the UK government has been supporting vulnerable people, such as children, people with disabilities, older people on pensions and migrants, via benefits (Universal Credit). Yet, people claim that the benefit is not enough to cover their basic needs and they often go hungry. Changes such as delayed payments that were previously paid in advance is a large source of delay and debt. Moreover, benefit provisions sanction applicants by withholding funds, further complicating and elongating the process of receiving aid. These and other problems have made it difficult for claimants to use this system and receive vital funds.
People claiming benefits are often afraid to ask for more help as they could be considered unable to support their children and risk losing their children to social services. A single mother of four children, interviewed at Wisbech Food Bank in Cambridgeshire, raised concerns that benefit cuts have restricted her from ensuring her children are fed adequately.
The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank charity, reported a 5% increase in emergency food parcels distributed between 2008 and 2018. Distribution rose from just under 26,000 to more than 1.33 million within a decade. Other independent food banks have established themselves in the UK over this time, as a way to promote food security and alleviate food poverty.
But is this a sustainable solution? Using food banks to treat inequalities may be driven by poor policies and capitalism and can result in more poverty. A well-balanced diet is not guaranteed through food banks as it relies solely on donations. Conditions like obesity, malnutrition, hypertension, iron deficiency, and impaired liver function continue to thrive amongst populations living in poverty. Other research shows loss of dignity and cultural preferences is linked to food bank use.