As the cost of living crisis grows, there is little sign that the government is taking effective action to help those who are in real need. In a pre-election interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the prime minister failed to articulate what help may be available to a pensioner struggling to make ends meet.
Shortly after, George Eustice, the cabinet minister overseeing food and farming, told Sky News that “by going for some of the value brands rather than own-branded products – they can actually contain and manage their household budget”. He also suggested that Elsie, the 77-year-old woman who said she was riding buses to keep warm, should go to her local council for help. Much derided, these comments demonstrate how out of touch the government is with the lives and problems faced by many citizens.
Food insecurity (sometimes referred to as food poverty) is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Worryingly, this has become a fact of life in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world.
Food banks are now under even more severe pressure to meet the increasing demand. Recent figures from the Trussell Trust show that:
“The need for emergency food has dramatically risen in the past six months. This follows the £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit and the soaring rise in living costs that people are facing. In the year to 31 March 2022, 2.1 million parcels were provided by food banks for people facing financial hardship across the country. Shockingly, 830,000 of these were given to children.”
This represents a 14 percent increase compared to the same period in 2019/20, as more and more people are unable to afford the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm, dry and clean.
Food banks are also reporting that people cannot afford the energy to cook fresh food and are turning down food bank support, a point echoed by the managing director of supermarket chain, Iceland. Furthermore, a new survey released by the Food Foundation has found a stark increase in food insecurity levels since the pandemic hit. In April, 7.3 million adults live in households that said they had gone without food or could not physically get it in the past month, which include 2.6 million children. This is compared with 4.7 million adults in January. As Anna Taylor, Executive Director of The Food Foundation notes:
“The Levelling Up white paper commits to boosting productivity, pay and job security but does not commit to reducing food insecurity rates. Food insecurity is a vital measure if we are to monitor severe material deprivation. It contributes not only to health inequalities and life expectancy, but also social wellbeing.”
Given the unwillingness of this Conservative government to change its policies in order to reduce these shocking levels of poverty, it is left to philanthropic organisations and communities themselves to step in.
Community food projects
I have been looking at some different initiatives such as community food projects, part of a movement which tackles food waste, inequality and social isolation, and which does much more than provide emergency food. They also contribute positively to healthy eating, social inclusion and wellbeing. They are used by a variety of people from students to refugees, families and elders. Such projects operate in the community, in venues such as children’s centres, in community centres and in churches. The projects extend food choice, accessibility and availability and operate as spaces where links between people and communities are forged through food sharing. One example in our area is the Gloucester Food Cycle Project.
Communal eating, whether it involves coming together for everyday meals or special feasts, has a long history and goes back at least to Neolithic times. For centuries, across all religions and cultures, practices such as sharing food and conversation, welcoming guests at the table, have been vital and valued social rituals. The history of social eating in more recent times includes the mutual aid welfare systems of the 1800s and the wartime national kitchens. Today, communal eating can be particularly important in a fragmented and often broken society.
A study by the ‘Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior’ in the USA showed that eating with others is also associated with healthier dietary outcomes. Those in this study who ate more shared meals were found to have higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, milk products, whole grains, fibre and key micronutrients with lower intakes of soft drinks and fast-food. Age UK notes that even before the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, 1.3 million older people were already suffering from or at risk of malnutrition in the UK. The covid lockdowns have brought new challenges to older people in keeping themselves well and nourished. In wider society, dysfunctional eating, skipping meals, eating fast foods of lower nutritional value with too much high fat and high sugar in the diet (often cheaper than healthier foods) are all significant problems with serious health implications.
One of the problems for many on low incomes is the lack of affordable healthy food, as pointed out by The Food Foundation in its annual publication, The Broken Plate in 2021. It found that the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 40 percent of their disposable income on food to meet the NHS Eatwell Guide costs. This compares to just 7 percent for the richest fifth. Food price is a major determinant of food choice, with price rises disproportionately affecting lower income groups. With rents and energy and fuel costs rising fast, cutting back on healthy fresh food and skipping meals, is often the most obvious way to eke out what little money you have to spend on food.
The National Food Service
The National Food Service (NFS) works to provide a sustainable, resilient and affordable food system where good food is available to all, is distributed equitably and is eaten with company. The service has set up a growing network of food justice projects across the country, stretching from Glasgow down to Falmouth. They are united by three main aims: to tackle income inequality and food insecurity, dramatically reduce food waste through local action, and engage isolated groups in the planning and organisation of social eating spaces. In Bristol for example, an NFS Community Dining and Takeaway Club has been set up on Monday evenings on a pay-as-you-feel basis at Lockleaze Sports Centre.
Open Kitchen Social club
There are many such laudable community eating projects where the focus is on people coming together to prepare and share healthy meals, in company, and offer mutual aid. The Open Kitchen Social Club was founded in 2014 as a social eating project in the centre of Sheffield. It provides food, peer support, and a place to meet for destitute asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and anyone in food or social poverty. Participants are encouraged to get involved: in the kitchen, hosting events and making delicious dishes from across its global community. This project has broadened its scope, offering occasional events and trips for its members, arts, crafts, music and language sessions, and many opportunities to cook at commercial events. It provides a tremendous morale boost for many disenfranchised and isolated people.
One of the founder members of Open Kitchen, Firas Sharefy, says,
“Open Kitchen provides a social space where people from different walks of life can enjoy cooking and eating a nutritious meal together. People who don’t often have the opportunity to ‘host’ including asylum seekers and people living on benefits can take a leading role in the kitchen and the social activities. This creates a friendly and welcoming space for all.”
These projects go one step above the food bank model, where recipients are often unfairly stigmatised, instead offering fresh, healthy food, often using surplus foodstuffs, and thereby eliminating food waste. They can be an opportunity to learn new skills, and bring people together which in turn helps to combat social isolation, depression and loneliness in our society.
The government’s responsibility
This is not to say that the government should not do more. Frequently the political discourse around poverty ignores the structural causes, such as wage inequality, lack of employment opportunities, including racial discrimination, and barriers to work. It often blames individual choice: pitting the heroic ‘working poor’ against the feckless ‘scroungers’ on benefits. The government’s own data illustrates that even before the pandemic households in receipt of universal credit were over five times more likely than the average household to experience food insecurity.
Benefits should increase in line with inflation to ensure people have sufficient income to afford basic necessities. There should be more targeted measures, too, to support working families who are struggling to feed themselves. A lack of true understanding and care about the plight of the poor was demonstrated by the chancellor in his spring statement. In the recent (10 May) Queen’s Speech there was nothing except vague gestures about ‘levelling up’. These were designed to placate the ‘red wall’ and will not put food on the table nor solve the growing problems of social isolation, poor diet and its effects on mental and physical health.
Social eating initiatives are a great example of communities helping themselves; they are a vital part of our social fabric and offer a way forward which challenges existing norms about the distribution and consumption of food. However, these initiatives are having to step in because the Government is failing in its duty to the poor of this country.