There is no shortage of food. The World Food Programme states that the world produces enough food to feed the entire global population. Indeed the UK’s waste food alone can provide enough to end UK food poverty, so why do some people still go hungry? The prevailing food system is anchored by the need for money to gain access to food. As Riches and Silvasti outline, food is a commodity, an article of value distributed by free market mechanisms. Affluent consumers are able to choose from an abundant variety of food products, arguably the citizens’ right to food is only realised if the citizen has purchasing power.
Income vs access to food
The UK government’s Family Food 2014 Report shows that after housing, fuel and power costs, food is the biggest expenditure for low income households. As the cost of living rises faster than income, this budget is tightly squeezed with low income households buying less food in 2014 than in 2007. The increase in food prices, the implementation of austerity measures and reformation of the Welfare State has cumulatively affected those living on low incomes, diminishing their ability to buy food, no matter how well they budget.
Low income vs health
Links between income and diet-related health are well recognised. The term ‘Household Food Insecurity‘(i), reaffirms these links by not only describing the inability to access enough appropriate and nutritious food but also the anxieties of acquisition, going beyond affordability to include the fear of going hungry and mental stress. The term is used in The Fabian Commission’s independent report on food and poverty, Hungry for Change, which explains how food choices are restricted for those on low incomes. According to the report, ‘healthy food’ is three times more expensive than ‘non-healthy food’, so, a mother on a low income is more inclined to skip meals in order to feed her child. She is also more likely to prioritise calories over nutrients simply to be able to afford food, choosing items which give a “tummy filling” feeling.
Government response: Welfare Reform
The welfare benefits system is an inconsistent and complex beast. The Government claims that the current reforms to the system will decrease dependency on welfare and move more people into work, but reforms have resulted in dire consequences for the poorest in society. There has been an increase in the severity and number of benefit sanctions and delays where a claimant can have their income stopped altogether thus removing the ability to buy food. These changes are included in the top three primary referral causes to Trussell Trust Foodbanks in 2014-2015 (Fig.1).
Welfare reform has led to a critical discourse from many leading anti-poverty groups(iii). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation discuss the fragility of low income households and outline that whilst the government may increase personal tax allowance, support for childcare and introduce a new basic pay rate named ‘National Living Wage’ (NLW); other benefits for working-age recipients – for both working and non-working families – shall be frozen until 2019. This exposes a large part of their income to future rises in the cost of living. Fig.2 demonstrates how households earning NLW will not meet even Minimum Standards of Living by 2020. Some food Industry representatives have also reportedly warned that they will lay-off staff if NLW is implemented whilst others have voluntarily committed to the higher pay rate, the Living Wage, which is annually calculated according to the cost of living (not to be confused with the government’s NLW!).
Fig 1. The Trussell Trust.
Primary Referral Causes in 2015-2015 to Trussell Trust foodbanks (2015).
Fig. 2. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Minimum Income Standards in 2020 (2015).
Government response: ‘Big Society’
‘Big Society’ responses are not working. Adjusting prices to keep food costs low (including supermarket offers and ‘essential’ ranges) or relying on emergency food providers like food banks for welfare provision, are not solutions to household food insecurity(ii), indeed they are a symptom of failing food and income redistribution policies. These methods exclude low income consumers from freedom of choice and socially acceptable methods of food acquisition, resulting in restricted access to nutritious and appropriate food. These governmental ‘responses’ arguably demonstrate how the Government is further reducing household income, and failing millions of citizens in their Right to Food.
The right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.
(The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, 2000).
Although this right is not an enforceable domestic law, Government is obliged to respect protect and fulfil it under international law.
You Tube – Geoff Tansey. The right to food – An overview by Olivier De Schutter (2014).
The journey towards a fairer food system
The way in which Volunteer Community Services, charities and NGOs have mobilised at an unprecedented scale to protect people as best they can against household food insecurity, demonstrates great concern from the general public. However, these efforts have proved to be unsustainable according to the ‘right to food’ standard. With the ‘right to food’ approach, Government should not retreat from its obligation but take central role as duty-bearer to protect access to enough nutritious, affordable and appropriate food for all.
Lambie-Mumford’s paper Addressing Food Poverty in the UK ends with recommendations outlining a networked approach with roles for a range of stakeholders including emergency food providers, policy makers, NGOs, the food industry, local communities, individuals and researchers to achieve this goal and hold Government accountable. The Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty outline a detailed approach for Government to begin the journey towards household food security, concluding that there needs to be coordinated action on income not prices. Decent work for decent pay, re-establishing the social security safety net, and protection from price rises could break the link between diet-related illness and income, and protect access to food for low income households.