Ten years of austerity in the UK has pushed increasing numbers of people into poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported that in 2019, 1,062,000 households in the UK were destitute: involving 2,388,000 people and 552,000 children. Take a moment to think about this: in the 5th richest country in the world we had significant numbers of men, women, and children unable to meet their basic needs, including food needs, compromising their mental and physical health, and condemning many children to never fulfilling their potential. And that was before the covid-19 pandemic.
Food is one of the flexible items in a household budget (along with fuel) and the inability to access enough food of sufficient quality and quantity is called “food insecurity.” The UK has only just started to measure this in national surveys and data are not yet available, but we have had external measurement of food insecurity from agencies such as Unicef, which reported in 2017 that more children in the UK were found to live in a severely food insecure household than in any other EU country. Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty had strong words for the UK Government when he reported in 2018, highlighting the dismantling of the welfare safety net, and cuts to local authority provision, that even before the covid-19 pandemic had plunged many people into destitution. Philip Alston highlighted that the costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poorer communities, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. But, he also highlighted the tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity he had seen, with charities and communities stepping in to fill gaping holes in the social safety net.
We have certainly seen people pulling together over the past year: food banks, community food projects, food aid distributors, businesses, and creative local authorities and other voluntary services groups stepped up to support those plunged into crisis by lockdown, ill-health, job loss, and family crisis. No one disputes the importance of this phenomenal response, but food aid is a sticking plaster.
IFAN (the Independent Food Aid Network) works with food banks and community food projects across the UK, but has a vision of the UK as a country where everyone can eat good food and food aid is no longer necessary. We cannot turn our backs on the many who need support, and IFAN connects its members to each other to share good practice and intelligence, and offer practical and financial support. Importantly IFAN campaigns for the essential structural changes we need to reduce and eventually eliminate the shameful food poverty on this wealthy island.
While many of the bigger food aid organisations have had significant Government and corporate support, IFAN represents and aids many of those working in more marginalised communities and does this without conflict of interest. IFAN supports and develops the most effective and least stigmatising forms of emergency food aid provision while it is needed, but in ways that do not further embed or institutionalise what should be seen as a short-term solution. Sabine Goodwin joined the newly formed IFAN in 2017. She has a background in television and investigative journalism and food bank volunteering. With a small team and committed trustees Goodwin has steered the charity to become an essential voice in critical discussions about how we manage the crisis we have been plunged into, and plan for a better future. Seeing the UK languishing at the bottom of developed country league tables globally on how it supports its poorest citizens and topping tables of ill-health related outcomes is not what many of us who have worked in food all our lives saw coming. Many things have been sobering this past year: but feeding our population, and particularly our children, and ensuring everyone has the human right to good food has to be a priority we all fight for in 2021 and beyond.
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Helen Crawley, First Steps Nutrition Trust.
Competing interests: None declared