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Food: A nation of haves and have-nots

Updated Friday, 11th April 2014
The latest evidence about the growth in food banks reminds us that the Coalition's policies are making the situation worse, writes Dick Skellington.

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"The peasants are revolting" and "Let them not eat cake" says a cartoon version of Norman Tebbit whilst a queue of people are heading into the foodbank behind his left shoulder. A stately home with a 'Tebbit Residence' sign is also in the background over his right shoulder. We live in a United Kingdom in which increasingly more and more families are being forced to resort to food banks. According to the charity Church Action on Poverty, over 500,000 people in the UK now rely on food banks. Between April and September last year, the Trussell Trust reported a triple increase in the number relying on their food banks – a rise to 350,000. Of these over one third were children. But that was a year ago. Today the numbers are climbing daily, and Government welfare 'reforms' are not helping.  
Not surprisingly, given their prime role in generating food poverty, the Coalition seems eager to suppress this reality. Research conducted in early 2013  by Warwick University and the Food Ethics Council concluded that there was a growing demand for food banks. The report, which was published by the Coalition in February, was sneaked out amid the flood crisis, after months and months of intense scrutiny by the Work and Pensions Department
Work and Pensions Minister, Lord Freud, still maintains that the rise in food banks, if indeed a reality, is caused not by genuine need, but by the expansion of charities such as the Trussell Trust, which, he claims, create the demand. Others, notably Lord Tebbitt – always a person to be relied on for reasoned judgement – argues that food banks are needed because the poor spend all their money on junk food. He reminds us of the truth in that old saying: 'beware all generalisations, even this one'.
It is a shame Lord Freud (I fear it is too late for Tebbitt) can’t attend one of the new compulsory honesty training courses teaching MPs how to behave in public office, so they are better able to identify the difference between right and wrong. Sadly these courses do not begin until after the General Election in 2015.
A year after the publication of the Warwick food bank report, the Coalition’s own welfare reforms have pushed more people into hardship. Increasingly food bank charities report that what is different in 2014 is that many more people are needing help who did not need it before: the safety net has collapsed. 
Citizens Advice report that over the Christmas period they intervened in more than 100,000 emergency situations to provide food vouchers to enable families put food on their tables during the season of good will. Chief Executive Gillian Guy explained: "Millions of families are facing pressures on their budgets. The combined impact of welfare upheaval, low wages and the high cost of living is putting unbearable pressure on many households."
Early this year the Coalition scrapped the Local Welfare Assistance Fund, making cash-strapped local councils less able to support families facing emergencies, especially on food. 
The £347m fund is lost as the Coalition devolves emergency funding to councils who can barely afford to provide basic services (Wales and Scotland are still providing emergency funds to their councils). It is estimated that currently over a third of local authorities are subsidising food banks, spending almost £3m on feeding benefit claimants. Whether they can continue to do this as food poverty mounts is debatable, especially now the Local Welfare Fund has gone.
The Local Government Association criticised the Coalition for cutting the fund without consultation. Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell, the Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said: “It is extremely disappointing that government has removed the funding for this safety net without first honouring its promise to discuss with councils what the consequence of such a move might be. Local authorities are working hard to support the most vulnerable in society while managing the biggest cuts in living memory to funding for services. For some councils, providing crisis payments to those in need from local service budgets is likely to be a stretch too far.”
Further reforms are adding to the booming food poverty crisis. The drift into hardship for many has not been helped by the introduction of the bedroom tax which has forced households into rent arrears, and limited food budgets, while other reforms have imposed greater sanctions on benefit claimants, jeopardising food security.
The impact of rising energy prices has also contributed to the problem. Last autumn the media reported a rise in the number of families returning meals to food banks because they could not afford to heat them.
Compare this to the escalating amount of food wasted in the UK. Did you know that a third of the food the world produces is never eaten, but consigned to waste?  Earlier this year the World Bank described the situation as shameful, and criticised wealthy nations such as the UK for throwing away too much food. While families in need resort to food banks, UK households throw away £660 of food a year
It would be a welcome move if the Government could seek to explore issues surrounding food waste, and try to establish a food distribution system which reduces waste and helps those in greatest need. Improving food security is essential. But such a strategy will be difficult if the Coalition refuses to address its own role in escalating the growth of food poverty. Food for thought…

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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