During the pandemic, the scandal of household food insecurity became acutely visible across the UK, even to many who would not normally see it or experience it first-hand. Through national policy and local action to help our neighbours, we expressed our human understanding that access to food is a fundamental right, and that letting people go hungry is a fundamental wrong.
Relentless rise in food and energy costs
Now, millions of people in our country face the bleak prospect of relentless household food insecurity as steep rises in the cost of energy and food start to hit home, and the war in Ukraine pushes up fuel and wheat prices. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Tesco was predicting an average 5 percent rise in food prices by the spring; food manufacturer 2 Sisters Food Group has estimated 15 percent by the end of the year.
Five per cent would be bad enough when you are living on a financial knife-edge, but copious evidence from Bootstrap Cook Jack Monroe shows that the price rise in lower-cost, basics ranges has risen by up to 344 percent for some products, and some cheaper options have been taken off the shelves altogether.
New data released by the Food Foundation in February showed that, since July 2021, the proportion of UK households experiencing food insecurity has risen from 7.3 percent of UK households to 8.8 percent (4.7 million adults). Two million children now live in households that do not have access to a healthy and affordable diet.
This is a red alert. But take heart. We can afford to fix this. We must ensure that our food money flows to the right places and reaches those who need it most. Here are six things we need to support.
1. Windfall taxes
In February, energy giants BP and Shell announced bumper profits of £9.5bn and £14bn respectively. It is hard not to view such profits as obscene at a time when so many people have to choose between heating and eating. Public money is needed at a scale way beyond local emergency food banks to help ease the pain of soaring energy prices.
Given the state of public finances following the pandemic, and the impression that some people have done rather nicely out of the crisis whilst others are going cold and hungry, windfall taxes may be a rich and publicly acceptable vein.
2. Real living wages
As food and energy prices rise, the government’s mandatory minimum wage fails to keep pace. The real living wage is better, but one in six jobs in the UK (17 percent) pay below this, with inadequate wages more likely to be paid to women and people of colour, who also (no coincidence here – the link is causal) disproportionately experience household food insecurity.
We must call on our local authorities, institutions and companies to become real living wage employers and to require their suppliers to follow suit. The government should also link calculation of the mandatory national minimum wage to the cost of living. The beneficial effects would ripple out through people’s shopping and lower-income neighbourhoods, multiplying as it goes. Business models predicated on poverty wages and hunger must no longer be acceptable.
3. Adequate safety nets
State pensions, universal credit and legacy benefits need to cover the cost of living and the cost of raising children so that they can eat, grow and learn well. At the same time, some of the really big costs in people’s lives need to be controlled – housing and energy. These are all the job of good government.
Making free school meals available to all children would also help. Scotland and Wales are already making big strides on this for all primary children and exploring options to expand and increase eligibility in secondary schools too.
4. Public money for public goods
There are very large amounts of food money in the system that could be made to work harder for us, for example:
- £2.1bn of public sector food procurement contracts, for food in the NHS, schools, government and the armed forces
- Free school meals: 1.63 million children, c.£700m a year
- Holiday projects with food: £200m over three years
- The soft drinks industry levy: c.£700m still unaccounted for
- School breakfast clubs: some are charitable, some publicly funded
- Healthy start vouchers: estimated £100m per year allocated for around 0.5 million eligible families, but around £30m unclaimed due to poor promotion
- Local authority meals on wheels services (where they still exist)
- Proposed fruit and vegetables on prescription: as signalled in the recent levelling up white paper
This adds up to roughly £4bn of public food money. It should all be spent in a way that puts people before profit and supports health, sustainability, real living wages and the local multiplier effect in communities and neighbourhoods who need it most. The public consultation that was due ‘at the start of 2022’ is a chance for us to insist that healthy, fair and sustainably produced food must be mandated in the public sector.
5. Joined-up local responses
Local authorities, working with food poverty alliances and food partnerships, have a big role to play in supporting the local services and networks that can prevent people falling into crisis, or catching them as they fall.
Alliances and food partnerships bring together a wide range of actors such as community organisations, local leaders, housing associations, local authorities, public health officials and faith groups. Every area should be expected to have a food partnership and/or food poverty alliance because – pandemic or not – the everyday food crisis looks set to grow.
6. Accountability for action
Household food insecurity gets passed like a hot potato between government departments and decision-makers. Nobody wants to step up and take overall responsibility for solving it.
We desperately need laws and policies that hold to account all the decision-makers and purse-holders who need to act, and through which each understands their own jigsaw puzzle piece and the part they must play. There will be no serious action to tackle the cost of living crisis without it.
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