Opinion

UK's food poverty crisis is spiralling out of control – and there's only one way to fix it

Tackling food waste is not enough to fix the UK's food poverty crisis, says Sabine Goodwin, director of the Independent Food Aid Network

People queueing at a food bank

A food bank queue in London last August. Image: Alamy

The King’s Coronation Food Project has brought welcome attention to Britain’s food poverty and food waste crises. However conflating these two social ills risks further entrenching food banks.

It’s clear that the King means well and that help is desperately needed as people facing poverty, unaided by the Autumn Statement, heading into a dire winter. But we must face facts. No amount of food surplus redistribution is going to stop hunger from happening and pretending otherwise risks covering up the actual cause of food poverty: lack of income.  

The UK food poverty crisis has been spiralling out of control for years. The key driver behind this shocking 21st century phenomenon is deepening poverty. Over the last 13 years, food banks have emerged as primary responders to extreme poverty. Many opened in 2012 or 2013 as austerity policies took their toll. New groups of volunteers believed the need for help would be short-lived. Today’s extensive patchwork of food banks would have been unimaginable.

Back in 2015, the Trussell Trust was still aiming to open a food bank in every town but by 2018 the anti-poverty charity had changed tack. Like the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), it pledged to put the food bank genie back in its bottle. The reasons behind this change of heart were clear. Government policies were creating the need for food banks while millions of food parcels had apparently failed to stem the tide. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) started measuring food insecurity, or the inability of households to afford food, in 2019. The reality became obvious – distributing food parcels didn’t tip the scales in the right direction. Data from other surveys told us the same story. By 2022, the DWP’s Family Resources Survey revealed that 86% of households reporting severe food insecurity didn’t access a food bank. Eye-watering food bank data, increasing year on year, was evidently the tip of the food insecurity iceberg. 

In the last six months, the Trussell Trust alone distributed 1.5 million food parcels. IFAN’s latest figures mirror this trend – independent food banks have supported yet more people struggling to pay for food. Thousands of other food aid teams have also filled the gap. Meanwhile food banks teams and volunteers are struggling to cope with demand as donations have fallen and the quality and quantity of surplus food have reduced. Frontline volunteers hear people’s harrowing experiences of poverty and it is becoming harder to bear when so little can be done to help. Volunteer burnout is commonplace and food bank managers are setting up mental health support to their teams. 

What’s more, there’s growing realisation that a charitable response cannot possibly provide the dignity of income. Nor can it protect a person’s right to food. Surplus food low in nutritional value and poor-quality items can often put people’s health at risk. The long-term health impact of food surplus redistribution has inevitably been left unscrutinised. 

The idea of “repurposing” food surplus for social good is certainly alluring but entangling this modus operandi with the people’s struggles to afford food is counterproductive. It certainly suits supermarkets to redirect surplus but, in reality, poor quality food often ends up at food banks where volunteers add waste disposal to their endless list of tasks. As many of us wrote in a letter to The Observer in March this year: “While the expansion of organised surplus food redistribution might seem like a win-win solution, this practice fails to reduce food waste levels while undermining policies designed to address food insecurity.” 

The Plenty to Share campaign argues that the way to address food waste is to tackle abundance at source. Keeping the food poverty and food waste problems distinct is the first critical step in tackling the root causes of both. Food surplus redistribution charities and supermarkets use terms like “fight hunger” or “end hunger” when channelling surplus in the direction of people struggling to afford food but they refuse to mention the drivers of poverty. It’s critical to call out the inconsistency at play in this space. Surely the collective priority must be to point out the inadequacy of social security payments, low wages, and insecure work. While emotive language draws in donations, it hides the real reasons behind poverty and hunger in the UK. 

The contents of this week’s Autumn Statement should sharpen our focus. Set for April 2024, increases to the National Minimum Wage (not a real living wage), bringing social security payments in line with September’s inflation rate, the reinvigoration of Local Housing Allowance and employment programme investment are positive commitments. But they lose their shine when put in the context of the winter ahead. Draconian changes to Work Capability Assessment will inevitably lead to more hardship and hunger. And although the Household Support Fund has proved to be an essential lifeline in English local authorities, it’s unclear if it will extended beyond March 2024.

Too many households are heading into this winter facing poverty as food banks, already creaking at the seams, wonder how they can possibly cope. A food bank response to poverty has proved to be ineffective and unsustainable. Perpetuating the myth that food surplus redistribution can possibly solve food poverty suits stakeholders with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. These happen to include a government stubbornly ignoring a poverty catastrophe in our midst. 

No less than 3.8 million people faced destitution in the UK in 2022. The Autumn Statement threatens to make the situation worse. However well-intentioned, attempting to bridge the gap between food poverty and food waste is tantamount to entrenching these problems further.

Sabine Goodwin is the director of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN).

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