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Food poverty: a national disgrace

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foodbank, poverty, national scandalThe scandal of food poverty in C21 Britain; over 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid.

Government figures, last updated for 2010–11, show that around 13 million people are in poverty in the UK.

And according to the Food Ethics Council, at least four million of them suffer from food poverty.

There is currently no established government measure of food poverty, but a recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research defined households who have to spend more than 10 per cent of their annual income on food as being in food poverty.

And the Food Ethics Council points out that food poverty means that an individual or household isn’t able to obtain healthy, nutritious food – they have to eat what they can afford, not what they choose to.

This explosion in food poverty and the use of food banks is a national disgrace.

And it undermines the UK’s commitment to ensuring that all its citizens have access to food – one of the most basic of all human rights.

Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam estimate that over 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid – the use of food banks and receipt of food parcels – and this number is likely to escalate further over the coming months.

This is substantially higher than the headline figure of 350,000 supplied by the Trussell Trust, as at least half as many people again are provided with food parcels or other forms of food aid by non-Trussell Trust food banks and other emergency food aid projects.

Some of the increase in the number of people using food banks is caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices.

The National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to live with dignity and can afford to feed and clothe themselves and stay warm.

More alarmingly, up to half of all people turning to food banks are doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed, reduced, or withdrawn altogether.

Figures gathered by the Trussell Trust show that changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks; these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions and sickness benefit reassessments.

There is clear evidence that the benefit sanctions regime has gone too far, and is leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale.

There is a real risk that the benefit cuts and the introduction of Universal Credit (which will require internet access and make payments less frequently) will lead to even larger numbers being forced to turn to food banks.

Food banks may not have the capacity to cope with the increased level of demand.

The growth in food aid demonstrates that the social safety net is failing in its basic duty to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately.

The exponential rise in the creation of food banks reflects a growing problem and only delivers mitigation.

Food banks provide a vital emergency service to the people they support but they do not address the underlying structural causes for the growth of food poverty.

Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of the welfare state.

Even in developing countries, food aid is increasingly seen only as an emergency stop-gap measure.

International practice would now indicate a preference for cash payments over food handouts, not least because they distort local markets and are not part of a long-term development or anti-poverty strategy.

It is unacceptable that while thousands are being forced to turn to food banks and millions are unable to meet the rising cost of living as a result of the Government’s austerity programme, wealthy individuals and corporations continue to dodge their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes.

Recommendations:

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee conducts an urgent inquiry into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions, welfare reform changes, and the growth of food poverty.

The Department for Work and Pensions publishes data on a regular basis on the number and type of household who are deprived of their benefits by reason of benefit delay, error or sanctions; the numbers leaving and returning to benefits after a short period of time, and the number of referrals from Jobcentre staff to local food banks.

The Department for Work and Pensions commission independent monitoring of the roll-out of Universal Credit, to ensure that there is no unintentional increase in food poverty.

All referrals to food banks/emergency food aid provision, made by government agencies, be recorded and monitored in order to establish more accurate numbers on people experiencing food poverty in the UK.

HM Treasury makes tackling tax dodging an urgent priority, including promoting robust and coordinated international action at the forthcoming G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June – to reduce the need for future cuts in benefits, and restore the principle that benefits should at least rise in line with inflation.

The report – and other resources on food poverty – is available from Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty.

Or feel free to write a scathing letter to your MP, or start Tweeting on this  subject: #foodpoverty

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