The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Food poverty: Time to lift the veil?

14th February 2018

A century on from Charles Booth’s famous Poverty Map of London, accurate information on poverty has never been more important. So the findings of a new study that 1 in 4 parents are skipping meals because they don’t have enough money shows we need to take a much closer look at a new form of an old problem – that of food poverty in modern Britain. But without regular data collection, this poverty is largely invisible.

Though hunger is more commonly associated with developing countries, UN evidence suggests 8 million Brits don’t have enough to eat. That’s a city the size of London without reliable access to safe and healthy food.

At the headline level, it is poverty that prevents access to enough healthy food. Against a backdrop of job insecurity, low wages and rising energy prices, 59% of adults have felt a rise in the cost of their food shop. This leaves some unable to buy food, with foodbank referrals in areas of full Universal Credit rollout seeing a 16.85% increase last year.  

But absolute poverty isn’t the whole story. Since the poorest households spend a greater share of their income on food, they are often forced to prioritise more-filling and less-wasteful foods to make ends meet. This means less affluent families are more likely to end up with high calorie and low nutrient food on their plate.

Unsurprisingly, food insecurity has knock-on health effects. Studies show a statistically significant relationship between food insecurity and mental health problems in women.  Aside from the obvious anxiety of not knowing where the next meal will come from, evidence suggests the shame and humiliation experienced by food bank users drives emotional distress.

Children are by no means sheltered from this. Food insecurity has a series effect on academic ability, with kids who eat breakfast twice as likely to do well in tests. And since food insecure households can’t pick healthy options, the damage is also physical.

Poor diet has been found to relate to 30% of the life years lost in early death and disability, and contributes to 50% of all coronary heart disease deaths and 33% of cancer deaths. The scale of the problem shows up in the budget – increasing hospital admissions related to malnutrition costs the NHS £12 billion a year.

And yet our existing health strategy is not set up to protect the food insecure. Take the increased risk of obesity in food insecure women, for example. While the Government obesity strategy focuses on reducing junk food TV ads and junk food restaurants, this doesn’t change the fact that low-nutrient food may be the only option for financially strained families. Health problems such as obesity and overweight can therefore prevail in deprived households, entrenching the cycle of inequality.

So how can we design effective interventions to protect the food poor? Shining a light on who is affected and in what way would be a good start. At the moment, we don’t have a routine survey for measuring food insecurity. Food bank stats don’t give us the full picture – it is thought that 17 times more people are living in food insecure households than those who get food from Trussell Trust food banks.

There are already tried and tested ways to measure food poverty elsewhere.  The UN Food Insecurity Experience Scale, for example, is sensitive to variations in the severity of food insecurity, allows for cross country comparisons and even provides policy makers with information they can use to inform interventions.

All the Government needs to do to adapt this for the UK is to insert one of these into a preexisting national survey, such as the UK-wide Living Costs and Food Survey. The Food Foundation estimates this would only cost around £50-75000.

That’s why it’s exciting to see a Private Member’s Bill proposed to Parliament to do exactly that. When it comes before MPs in October, the Food Insecurity Bill will oblige the Government to routinely measure food insecurity. The Bill could be the first step in preventing the unseen suffering of hidden hunger.

Of course, this isn’t going to change food poverty overnight. And Private Members Bills must find support from the Government itself to have any chance of success. But taking a leaf out of Mr. Booth’s book and mapping the crisis would help illuminate the huge section of our population that isn’t sharing in the consumerist abundance of 21st century Britain. Lifting the veil on food poverty will finally expose the problem – and leave no more excuse for inaction.

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