In a former life I was a community nurse visiting those who needed healthcare at home for whatever reason that might have been. I tended post-operative wounds, cared for the terminally ill, administered flu vaccinations, and much more. I always felt that as a community nurse, I was in a very trusted and privileged position as people would let me visit their homes to care for them. I also got to see something that others did not—how they lived on a day-to-day basis.
The practice that I worked for had patients from all over the city, from the wealthiest parts to the parts where after dark, if you were anxious, you could call for a police car to accompany you on a visit. I always remember that at Christmas it was usually those families that had the least who would insist on giving you a box of chocolates, a tube of hand cream, or a card, when I knew fine well, they could barely afford to feed themselves. In the bigger posher houses, you would be lucky, in some cases, if they wished you a Merry Christmas.
In those days it was not unusual to go to the house of a pensioner and find it cold and dark with little food to be had. There was many a lunch hour when I would nip to the local shop to get bread or milk, or a tin of soup and some cheese, and make them something warm to eat. As a healthcare professional, I was mindful of malnutrition and knew the importance of good nutrition to help recovery, maintain independence, and combat ill health. It was important then, and now, with covid-19 rife in our communities, it is even more important, because poverty has escalated to an unfathomable scale.
What I would say from personal experience is that the benefit system was fairer and kinder in those days. It has, in recent years morphed into a less compassionate and poverty inducing system that is not fit for purpose and certainly not addressing the overwhelming need.
Fast forward three decades to 2020 and we are in the midst of a global pandemic, Brexit is already having an impact on our day to day lives, and the picture is far worse. At the end of last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its report into destitution in the UK, stating that over a million households experienced destitution at some point in 2019. These households contained 2.4 million people, including 550,000 children. Even more worrying is that these are pre-covid figures. Something is very wrong with our society and its leadership, when in our rich nation such reports are being published on a weekly basis. I sometimes wonder just how many surveys, reports, research projects, shocking media stories, and lived experience testimonies it will take for the government to actually listen and change the system.
I have long since left front line nursing and have spent the past ten years of my career on a different kind of care. It’s one that has taken me the length and breadth of the UK, campaigning and lobbying on children’s food insecurity. In that time, I have met some amazing people and organisations, both charitable and statutory, doing their bit every single day to support struggling families and individuals living in poverty.
In 2016, I came across IFAN (Independent Food Aid Network) co-founded by another Churchill Fellow. I have seen it grow from a small grassroots organisation into a national charity with a membership that now includes over 400 independent food banks. Membership (which is free) stretches from the Western Isles of Scotland, to the tip of Cornwall, covering all four UK regions. Its ethos is to call for the structural changes needed for food aid to be reduced and eliminated in the long term, and this has never wavered from its inception.
IFAN’s small team spends most of their waking hours engaging with a host of different sectors from national agencies, such as Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions, to sourcing protective equipment for its members along with fielding media enquiries from national press, all the while gathering and analysing data from their members to continue to evidence the ever-increasing levels of UK food insecurity. I have come to know the team at IFAN quite well these last couple of years and was really pleased to see its national coordinator Sabine Goodwin win two awards for her tireless efforts around food aid and social justice.
More recently IFAN has been working with several other anti-poverty charities (The Trussell Trust, CPAG, The Children’s Society, Step Change, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Turn to Us) forming a coalition calling for a Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme. IFAN is also a member of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership Food Group responding to covid-19, which is looking at how best collaborative efforts can be made to ensure food access during the pandemic and develop appropriate policies to also ensure that everyone has the Right to Food and to live in dignified food security.
With very uncertain times ahead, the recent calls from IFAN and others makes complete sense. Those calls are that UK government must make the £20 uplift to Universal Credit permanent, remove the two-child limit and benefit cap, and end the five weeks wait before people can receive their first Universal Credit payment. It is ludicrous that the system gives people advanced loans of their entitled benefits when they may already be in debt and struggling. Advanced grants would make much more sense, save on administration, and support families and individuals in a far more compassionate way.
We have recently seen the publication of “Build Back Fairer” a report by Michael Marmot and colleagues on the covid-19 pandemic and health inequalities. It is essential reading for all politicians and those in change-making leadership roles. The phrase that stood out for me in ensuring a healthy standard of living for all was “Eradicate food poverty permanently and remove reliance on food charity.”
Political will and resources are required to make change happen and as we head into one of the worst recessions that this country has ever known it will be advocacy organisations like IFAN that will be needed more than ever.
Please donate generously to The BMJ Appeal 2020-21. Donations can be made here: https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/bmj.
Lindsay Graham, Churchill Fellow, Poverty and Inequality Commissioner (Poverty and Inequality Commission Scotland), Committee Member of the National Lottery Community Fund Scotland, Member of Scottish Government Social Renewal Advisory Board.
Competing interests: none declared.