Where next for discussions on household food insecurity in the UK?

19 December 2016 

Hannah Lambie-Mumford - Research Fellow at SPERI

Finding progressive policy responses that tackle food insecurity is essential for reducing in work poverty. 

At this time of year, many of us are moved by the stories bought to the fore by festive charitable appeals.  Food banks are an increasingly prominent form of charitable giving and at the beginning of this month Fareshare and the Trussell Trust ran their Christmas Neighbourhood Food Collection in Tesco stores nationwide.  In the year 2015-2016 the public donated 10,570 tonnes of food which fed over a million people at Trussell Trust foodbanks, up from 1,225 tonnes (which fed less than 130,000 people) five years ago.

The rise of food banks and increasing need for help with food has been a high profile – and hotly contested – issue in recent years.  Recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation figures suggest that 8.4 million people struggle to access enough adequate food in the UK.  Since the issue came to the political fore in about 2013, there have been numerous inquiries and reports, including an All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom and the Fabian Society’s commission on Food and Poverty.

Earlier this month, the House of Commons debated whether household food insecurity should be directly measured in the UK through national surveys.  As researchers, NGOs and even the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee have argued, understanding the exact nature and scale of the problem is a vital first step that is required to inform progressive policy responses to promote food security in the UK.  So, when the DEFRA minister ultimately maintained that existing monitoring (based on percentage of income spent on food) was adequate, this parliamentary debate gives us pause to consider the next phase of discussions about food insecurity.

Welfare reform, and the role that increased conditionality and reduced social security entitlements have played in driving need for food banks, held a prominent position in the debate.  ESRC research, as well as recent work by the University of Oxford, has highlighted the importance of these dynamics.  The issue of in work poverty and pursuing opportunities for secure, well paid employment were also raised by MPs.  All of these discussions focus on ways to promote economic access to food, a policy priority which would form a key cornerstone of any progressive response to overcoming food insecurity.

Other discussions, however, move us into trickier territory – and will require considered and careful evidence based debate going forward.  Often in discussions about food insecurity and food charity, the question of the role of food waste is raised.  And last week’s debate was no different.  Food waste and food insecurity are both undeniably symptoms of dysfunctional food and socio-economic systems.  But they are distinct policy problems and should not be conflated.  Certainly, one (waste food) should not be seen as a way to overcome the other (food insecurity).

Given the high profile nature of food banks in the UK today, and the unprecedented extent of their provision, what is clear is that the charitable sector is in practice responding to experiences of food insecurity in local communities.  Yet, one of the most pressing overarching questions that we will need to address is a normative one: who should ­be responding to food insecurity?

Whilst emergency food initiatives like food banks are important spaces of caring and social solidarity in local communities, these systems are problematic.  Given that they are voluntary initiatives, their provision is not an entitlement accessible to all.  They are also very much distinct from the main socially accepted mode of acquiring food in the UK (shopping) and their sustainability (in terms of securing and providing enough food) can be a challenge.  What are required to address food insecurity are progressive policy responses – focussed on rights and entitlements.

Also last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published research which found that in work poverty has reached a record high.  The economic security of households will remain a key issue in 2017, likely taking on increasing urgency as food and fuel prices rise. It is vital that food insecurity is considered within this policy context.  Restricted economic access to food affects people’s lives in numerous ways – it impacts on their health, their wellbeing and their ability to participate fully in society.  Whilst last week’s debate may have ended in something of an impasse, we should not lose sight of the importance of this policy agenda and the most progressive ways to pursue it.

This blog was first published on the ESRC Shaping Society blog and is republished here with permission

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