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Going hungry in the fifth richest country in the world

by Imogen Richmond Bishop | Sustain UK
Friday, 16 November 2018 16:49 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Food insecurity in Britain is not due to a lack of availability of food but rather a lack of ability to buy food

Imogen Richmond Bishop coordinates the Right to Food Programme for Sustain UK

Having enough good quality food to eat should be a bare minimum in a country like the UK, and yet an estimated 8.4 million of us suffer from food insecurity. The UK government might dispute this figure, but they have refused to measure food poverty themselves. Either way any number of millions in poverty is unacceptable.

For the past twelve days, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Phillip Alston has been in the UK on an official visit. During this time he took part in a number events with communities suffering from poverty and food insecurity. At one such event in Newham co-organised by Just Fair and Community Links, he heard testimonial after testimonial from a wide range of people all of whom were struggling to put food on the table and were forced to use emergency food aid in order to feed themselves and their families.

Food insecurity can be caused by a number of factors, and these all too often stem from recent changes to the tax and welfare system or from cuts to local authority budgets. For example an elderly widower who is reliant on meals on wheels but sees this service removed after his local council is forced to make cutbacks may no longer be able to feed himself; or a young adult who after they have lost their job now faces a built in six week waiting period before receiving their first Universal Credit payment; or the single parent who despite working full time still faces a 20 percent shortfall in their budget every week.

However not everyone has been equally affected by recent changes to the tax and welfare system. In an interim report released at the end of his visit, Phillip Alston stressed how those who are on the lowest incomes, people with disabilities, single parents, and women are consistently the most affected. A cumulative impact assessment by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission of recent tax and welfare reforms, found that on average women lost around £400 compared to an under £30 loss by men.

The visit of the Special Rapporteur should push our government into recognizing the scale of the problem facing many of our fellow citizens and to start thinking seriously about how they will tackle food insecurity in a meaningful way. They have already signed up to a number of international standards that protect our right to food, it is now time that they take action. But distracted by Brexit proceedings that may be further exacerbating the problem, action doesn’t appear high on the British government’s list.

Local communities have responded amazingly to the rise of food insecurity by helping those in need, for example by setting up food banks or organising community meals. All data that I have seen has shown that demand for these services is rising. Recent figures released by the Trussell Trust, who represent two thirds of all food banks in the UK, found that between April and September of this year they gave out 658,048 food parcels across their network. This is a 13 percent increase on the same period for 2017.

What we need to see now is an equally strong response from our government to tackle the scourge of food insecurity affecting millions across the country.

As I have shown, food insecurity in the UK is not due to a lack of availability of food but rather a lack of ability to buy food.

There are a number of upstream interventions the government could take, so for example, by removing the built in waiting period for Universal Credit or by tying wages and welfare levels to the actual cost of living the government could take major steps towards ensuring that people do not have to go to bed hungry.