Food bank volunteers make up nutritionally balanced food parcels in a church back room that serves as one of the distribution centres for Cannock and District Foodbank. Photo: TUC
Over a million visits to food banks
In the 2014-15 financial year, Trussel Trust foodbanks helped feed families over one million times. As Michael noted when he blogged about this last week, that figure only covers Trussel foodbanks. If you include the ventures run by churches, charities and other community groups the true figure will be significantly higher.
It’s worth visiting that number again and making it our Fact of the Week, because the growth of food poverty is one of the most shocking developments of our time. Think to yourself, five years ago, had you heard of the Trussel Trust?
Food poverty is dangerous.
We already know that poverty generally is intimately linked to health. A few weeks ago I reported that official figures showed that life expectancy in the poorest parts of the country is up to 9 years less than in the richest. And the Marmot Review five years ago famously showed the ‘social gradient’ in health: “the lower a person’s social position, the worse his or her health.”
The link between poor health and food poverty is equally strong.
Marmot revealed that 5% of people with low incomes were skipping meals for a whole day and that the availability of healthy food – especially fresh food – was worse in deprived areas. These areas were, on the other hand, four times as likely to have a McDonalds as the least deprived neighbourhoods.
Food poverty is one of those issues where different experiences mean that most people don’t know enough to make judgements about life for the poorest. The Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty’s interim report pointed out that, for most of us, food is much more affordable than it once was. This is because there has been a long-term fall in the relative cost of food:
But this chart also shows that food started becoming more expensive again in 2006 and the Fabian Commission notes that this has hit the poorest families hardest. In 2012, they report, the average household spent 11.6% of their budget on food, the bottom fifth spent 16.6% and the very poorest 35%. And, of course, poor households whose choice is restricted because health or other requirements limit their ability to switch to cheaper alternatives spend the highest proportion of all.
The Faculty of Public Health, the standard setting body for specialists in public health, reports that there are clear links between poverty and poor diet and between poor diet and poor health, especially diseases responsible for large numbers of deaths: cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes. They report that “poor diet is related to 30% of life years lost in early death and disability” and to low birthweight. Obesity (“modern malnutrition”) is a major risk factor for poor health and it is linked to having a diet high in fat, sugar and salt. Healthy diets, on the other hand, lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of some cancers and of high blood pressure (and hence of coronary heart disease and stroke). The Faculty points to evidence showing that:
- People on low incomes eat more processed foods, higher in saturated fats and salt.
- People on benefits eat less fruit and vegetables.
- People in workless households consume more calories, and considerably more fat and salt.
- Women in social class V are twice as likely to be obese as women in social class I.
- People in the most deprived 20% are one and a half times as likely to develop diabetes as people generally.
Hunger links to other health problems, poor performance at school and economic disadvantage throughout life. A survey by the NASUWT found teachers reporting that children were coming to school hungry, tired, sometimes sick and unable to learn and concentrate. Sixty nine per cent of the two and a half thousand teachers surveyed said that they had seen pupils coming to school hungry, 24% had brought in food for hungry pupils and 56% had seen their school give pupils food.
Public policy, especially benefits policy, can make hunger worse. Freezes and changes to the way benefit rates are increased to take account of inflation have reduced the real value of the benefits millions rely on. At the same time, Jobcentre Plus resorts to sanctions (stopping some or all of your benefits for up to three years) much more frequently, so there is a growing number of families who have no benefits at all or who have to cope with receiving them at the ‘severe hardship’ rate. Below the Breadline, published last year by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussel Trust reported that 1.75 million families had seen an absolute cut in their incomes as a result of changes to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit alone. These problems have forced people into food poverty: in the early summer of 2013, over half of all referrals to Trussel Trust food banks were due to problems with social security and another study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that the demand for food parcels from food banks was highest in the communities hit hardest by benefit sanctions, austerity cuts and unemployment.
So, how should union members respond to food poverty and the rise of hunger? (I should say here that this is a personal statement, it isn’t a ‘TUC line’ on the subject.) Well, our first response should be, as with other social problems, to say that they demand a social solution. The Labour Party has a five point plan for bringing down the numbers who need to use food banks, which includes tackling low pay, having a co-ordinated food policy, dealing with benefit delays, cutting sanctions and scrapping the Bedroom Tax. It’s a good plan, and all the items are worthwhile in themselves, but for as long as benefit rates are too low, I’d say we’ll still probably have some level of food poverty.
Which means that there’ll continue to be a need for responses that operate at a different level. I was very struck by the Faculty of Public Health’s briefing on food poverty, which gave an indication of how poverty translates into poor diet through a series of “barriers to healthy eating”:
- Most obviously, low incomes and debt make healthier foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, less affordable. It is often claimed that healthy food isn’t more expensive, but, according to the Faculty, generally it is.
- When healthy food is affordable often it isn’t easy to get hold of, because of the closure of shops in deprived areas and growth of out-of-town supermarkets that are hard to get to by public transport.
- The fact that easily available, cheap, processed foods are often high in fat, sugar or salt.
- Problems with literacy and numeracy making information about healthy diets hard to understand.
- Especially when food labeling is confusing or misleading.
- And food marketing promotes unhealthy food. The Faculty reports that “99% of food and drink advertised to children during Saturday morning children’s television programming were high in fat or sugar or salt.”
The Department of Health has a “responsibility deal” that aims to address some of these problems by persuading businesses and other organisations to take action to improve public health. There’s a “food pledge”, for instance, that commits organisations to ten actions, including providing calorie information, getting rid of artificial trans fats and creating “a positive environment that supports and enables people to increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables.”
I know that some trade unionists are cautious about initiatives like this, and I’d agree, where this sort of action distracts attention from the need to tackle poverty. I’d agree even more strongly where it’s used to deny the need for decent wages and benefits. But, in the context of a commitment to tackle poverty, I think campaigns like this can be progressive. A good example of the sort of work that can be done is the “Chuck the Junk Off the Checkouts” campaign, promoted by TUC affiliate the British Dietetic Association with Sustain and the Children’s Food Campaign. When you think about food poverty from a social perspective it makes you even angrier that supermarkets position unhealthy snacks at the checkouts. Parents and children queuing at the tills can’t escape this marketing and, after an hour trudging around the supermarket they’re probably at tired and less able to resist their children’s pestering. When the Campaign surveyed 48 branches of 14 supermarkets they found that “the vast majority of food promoted [at checkouts] was unhealthy, with few healthy options on offer. In many cases, the food was positioned to attract the attention of children – and was often within their easy reach.”
The Campaign aims to persuade the supermarkets to stop this unfair and unhealthy tactic and to get the Department of Health to include this in the responsibility deal. What I particularly like about this campaign is that the BDA has focused on an issue where its members are the experts; where they know there’s a problem and they’ve decided on a goal that’s radical (it will be hard to get all the supermarkets to stop doing this) and which they know will make a difference.
Food poverty is a growing problem and it’s rightfully the target for political reforms – after all, it’s austerity and benefit reforms that have made the problem so much worse. And there’s room for expert initiatives like this too.