Why won't our government stop its own citizens going hungry?

By Bernadette Meaden
July 7, 2020

We will need a public inquiry to reveal all the government failings which caused the UK to have the second highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe.  But a new report from a House of Lords Committee lays bare a principal cause of the health inequalities which make so many people more vulnerable to the disease, their health blighted by a simple lack of nutritious food.

Hungry for Change, the report from the House of Lords Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment should be required reading for anyone who persists in regarding poor health and obesity as the result of ‘lifestyle choices’. 

In an understated but relentless way, the report exposes the brutal realities underpinning such shameful facts as: Britain having one of the highest obesity rates in Europe; people in the most deprived areas being twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived areas; and there being a difference in healthy life expectancy of around 20 years between the richest and poorest people in the UK.

Despite being some of Britain’s most privileged people, the peers who wrote the report have understood what the government cannot or will not admit: “Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of.”

To their credit, the Committee members have also taken on board the evidence presented to them of the many additional barriers to a healthy diet which poverty creates, such as having no fuel with which to cook, limited access to a working fridge or cooker, and the expensive luxury represented by a middle-class ‘store cupboard’ stocked with the requisite seasonings, spices and other ingredients which can make plain food enjoyable.

It’s also pleasing to see the report authors dub the term ‘food poverty’ the misnomer that it certainly is. People who are going without food are going without many other things too – it’s just poverty, full stop.

The report takes a wide-ranging and holistic approach, looking at our food system as a whole, explaining that "The industrial revolution changed our food system dramatically and together with free trade and cheap imports it has, over time, become disproportionately focused on the output of cheaper, less healthy foods." UK households purchase the highest proportion of highly processed foods of 19 European countries, and our system actively encourages the production of highly processed, less healthy food, through making it cheaper, more heavily promoted and easier to buy.

Some of these problems, which involve the whole system of agriculture and food production, are complex and may not be quickly or easily solved. But some of the worst problems are very simple, and actively caused by Conservative policies which could be stopped at the stroke of a pen, if the political will existed to do so. And top of the list is Universal Credit and our entire system of social security benefits.

As the report authors state, "While this report cannot address all of the underlying causes of poverty, one issue was highlighted to us as being very directly linked to people struggling to afford food and recourse to food banks: Universal Credit' They continue, 'people usually begin using food banks after some manner of life crisis… Our evidence showed that a five-week wait for UC has often represented this crisis.’

Let’s think about that for a moment – a vast system designed and operated by the government, ostensibly to support people when they are in need, is triggering life crises so severe that it causes people to go hungry, in one of the richest countries in the world, where food is abundantly available. And this is not a new problem – this and other problems with Universal Credit have been highlighted for years, since Universal Credit began, and the government is still allowing it to cause crises in people’s lives. That is simply shameful.

But it’s not just Universal Credit. Many people, particularly those who have a long-term illness or disability, remain on legacy benefits like Employment and Support Allowance, and many of them are also going hungry, because our benefits are so pitifully low.

One would think that the first priority of a social security system would be to ensure that those dependent on it did not go hungry. That would seem to be a minimum requirement, the least one could expect. But we are failing even on this basic requirement, so much so that one of the recommendations of this report is, "Understand the cost of a healthy diet and incorporate this into benefits calculations". So – make sure people have enough money to eat food which will not make them ill. It’s not much to ask, is it?

And of course, we have been here many times before – too many times. Since hunger began growing and foodbanks started to proliferate, there have been many such reports: telling the government how many people are going hungry, why they are going hungry, and how easy it would be to stop them going hungry. But here we are. People are still going hungry, and with unemployment about to rise rapidly following the pandemic, we will face an epidemic of hunger if the government does not act.

And because of these years of government cruelty and neglect, there are children in our schools who have never known what it is to have enough food, and certainly not enough of the right kind of food. This will already have inflicted damage on their growing bodies and brains, not to mention their mental health, affecting their ability to learn, and their future health as adults. The government is like a farmer damaging his seed corn, blighting his own future crop. If the first duty of a government is to protect its population, our governments have been failing abysmally for years.  

There is no excuse for the government not to take immediate action to ensure its own population can eat healthily. As Lord Krebs says, “The Government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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