Starved of access to a good diet

Modern food poverty has as much to do with physical exclusion as a lack of cash

Gary does the shopping on a Thursday evening. Sometimes he is able to borrow his mate's car, but generally he travels by bus. His eldest son comes with him to help carry the bags, and they take the same route each week: Lidl for the tried-and-tested cheap stuff that he knows the children will eat; on to the late-night market, if necessary, to get the best price on toiletries; and then up to the supermarket. Here they have to walk past the "three for two" special offers because Gary's budget will not stretch to them. Instead, they do, in his words, the "yellow sticker" run, hunting out reduced prices on the "better quality" goods that for him constitute a real bargain.

Gary checks the cupboards before he leaves the house to be absolutely sure of what they need, and he adds the bill up as he goes along to save embarrassment at the checkout.

There is no room for temptation. Gary has learnt from tough experience that keeping the family from going hungry depends on precise money management and an exact knowledge of local retail. It means a reliance on foods that "fill you up", rather than salad or fruit which do not. It means always having plenty of tins in the cupboard so that, when the food money has to go on shoes or the electricity bill, there is still something to eat that week. It means putting away 20p every week from September so the children can have their tin of biscuits and cans of pop at Christmas. And it means devoting a significant amount of time to a routine that demands detailed comparison shopping.

Modern food poverty - the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet - is as likely to be about the restricted quality of a household's food intake as its quantity. It is a single factor in the complex equation of social exclusion - a "normalised" distress associated with long-term economic struggle. Over the past two decades, it has reappeared in the full spectrum of the poorest households: single people, two-parent families and the elderly, as well as single parents such as Gary. This group includes the unemployed and the "working poor", both in cities and in the countryside. At its root is a basic lack of money, but the problems of access to a healthy diet are much more complicated than that.

When food poverty reappeared as a phenomenon in Britain in the early 1980s, the poor were blamed for their bad management skills and apparent predilection for "convenience" foods. But a dedicated and vigorous group of researchers and campaigners began to sketch what has become a well-known story of retail restructuring: the death of the high street and the loss of the independent retail sector. "Food deserts", combined with the slow withdrawal of the welfare state, became identified as the drivers of food poverty, and campaigners called for a structural response from government and the private sector.

Recent research by Demos has explored the less well-rehearsed, apparently "inconsequential" factors that bedevil the efforts of the poorest in society to access an adequate diet. Single parents with three part-time jobs fit their food shopping in around their work and the timing of the school pick-up, leaving them with insufficient time to "shop around". The reduced frequency of buses adds to the time burden of shopping in the city; in the countryside, it can mean a single opportunity each week to purchase food. The widespread removal of public toilets makes shopping with children even more difficult. The loss of local retailing stops the elderly from eating the fruit and vegetables that are too heavy to carry home; the mother in her high-rise flat cannot face the struggle of getting the buggy through the steel doors and down the stairs in order to wait for a bus to take her to Tesco.

The retail sector has responded to the mainstream time-starved, money-rich population with pre-washed salad and fresh pasta. The new dynamics of wealth are matched by an ever-growing supermarket product range and niche retailing. The needs of the time-poor money-poor go ignored. Food poverty is the result of wide-scale social drivers, but it is lived out locally. So while the policy response must be articulated on a national level, it has to be delivered on a local level.

Local authorities need to map their own areas of vulnerability - where the poorest live and the shops have moved out. They must consider practical measures to improve access, and work alongside the local private and voluntary sectors to deliver improvements. Action must be taken to change the food retail planning process. Most of all, the needs of the poor must be met by mainstream retail provision. Otherwise, in this era of consumer power and consumption politics, their continued social exclusion is guaranteed.

The writer is a Demos associate and co-author of a forthcoming pamphlet on food poverty published by Demos in association with the Tedworth Trust

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win