It’s time to act on food poverty

Our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country, writes Fiona Twycross AM.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images
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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era