The latest figures released by the Trussell Trust showing yet another dramatic rise in the number of people forced to rely on food banks in Britain are both shameful and deeply concerning.
What is most shocking is that the number of people fed by food banks has tripled before the added pressure put on people already struggling to make ends meet by recent welfare changes. All emergency food aid charities contributing to a recent investigation I led for the London Assembly anticipate the welfare cuts and changes, which will affect 2.6 million families in the UK, will further increase demand on their services. My report into food poverty has one simple aim, to make London a Zero Hunger City.
Given that Britain ranks as the seventh richest country in the world, our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country. The government must change course and take urgent action for this to happen. To stand by and watch, or deny there is a genuine and growing problem, is not an option.
Children should not go to school hungry, older people should not be admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents should not have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. Nobody should go hungry. These statements might seem obvious, but in London and across the UK children are going to school hungry, older people are being admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents are being forced to go hungry so their children can eat.
This is disgraceful and should shock us all out of complacency. What kind of country have we become? How can we go about our daily lives knowing this is happening? How can the government glibly slash benefits and support to children and parents – both in and out of work – without the least bit of shame?
Rather than just bemoaning the state of the country under the current shower of a government, what can we do to make things better? My London Assembly report sets out four initial steps to start tackling this problem within the capital many of which would work for other areas of the UK as well.
First, increase strategic oversight of food poverty. The London Food Board, responsible to the Mayor, should take on strategic responsibility for addressing food poverty with the aim of making London a Zero Hunger City. This responsibility should be included in a revised London Food Strategy that monitors risk factors for food poverty (including welfare changes and low income), facilitate the sharing of good practice and ensure a coordinated approach across the city. The Food Board should publish a paper on possible models for delivering Universal Free Healthy School Meals in London.
Second, make the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) central to delivering a zero hunger city. Food poverty contributes towards health problems like diabetes, malnutrition and obesity that will be priorities for many the new HWBs and they should take strategic responsibility within boroughs over the need to take action on food poverty. HWBs should lead a food poverty action plan and designate a link worker for the multiple organisations responding to food poverty.
We also need to work with schools to reduce child hunger. Schools should identify and address hunger in schools throughout the school day and support families in food poverty. Schools should engage with their local authority’s food poverty link worker, maximise registration and take up of free healthy school meals and use their Pupil Premium money to ensure the availability of free breakfasts and to provide after-school cooking activities.
Finally, get people who need help the help they need. Less than 1 per cent of food bank users are over 65 but increasing numbers of older people are finding it harder to afford food and the level of malnutrition in older people is unacceptably high. Emergency food aid organisations should seek out groups, such as the elderly, that face barriers to accessing their services.
Many food banks now provide advice and support beyond food, for example in relation to welfare, debt and employment. In providing these services, food banks go above and beyond their initial purpose and it is therefore inevitable that this support is not provided by all food banks. Although these services show a welcome recognition of the need to address the long-term needs of clients living in food poverty, food banks cannot and should not be expected to fill what appear to be gaps in state provision.
More needs to be done to get people the help they need, and food aid organisations should liaise with statutory authorities, and vice versa, to ensure people access the support they are entitled to. A key plank is rolling out universal free healthy school meals, as a start we can do this in our primary schools. Southwark, Islington and Newham Councils have already done this, it is possible.
There are solutions to the growing problem of food poverty, food banks should not become a new formal or informal part of our welfare state. We must act to stop people going hungry in the first place.
Fiona Twycross is a Labour Member of the London Assembly.