Morven McEachern

Professor of Sustainability and Ethics

Professor of Sustainability and Ethics Morven McEachern calls for real structural change to limit food insecurity in the UK.

“As Christmas tends to be a time for us to reflect and consider the needs of others, we feel an urgent need to highlight the experiences of people facing food insecurity this holiday season.

Over 1 in 5 people in the UK are now living in poverty, and in-work poverty rates (ie 4 million workers) are the highest they have ever been in the last 20 years.  As a result, emergency food aid usage continues to rise, and food bank use is set to increase over the Christmas period, too.

Many media articles and politicians have been quick to blame people for their misfortunes, accusing many of abusing the system and the charity of others.  However, existing research suggests a very different story.

It is true that there has been an escalation of emergency food support recently.  However, there is also growing acknowledgement that there have been issues with the rollout of Universal Credit.  These problems have meant that people from all walks of life can go weeks without any money at all.  This is where vulnerable consumers have to choose between turning on the heating and buying some food.

Existing research focuses on UK food bank users’ motivations and experiences.  In our own, ongoing research, we are currently investigating both food aid providers and users in the areas of Birmingham, Salford and Greater Manchester.  We have found that, while the Trussell Trust (who have been around for many years) offers a structured, but intermittent food support system via their food banks, emergency food providers and food aid organisations generally are very diverse.  They offer a wide range of independent, flexible food support services focused on their clients, who often also have a diverse range of needs.

Moreover, far from the media and political representations of the benefit abuser, what we have witnessed are cases indicating that the first visit to a food bank is a major barrier.  This is because of the stigma people feel in having no other option but to use those services.  A poignant quote from our academic fieldwork included:

“We went days without food…Couldn’t cook. I had nothing.  People don’t realise how hard it was… I mean, when we told his family about how we were, his brother looked – I mean, we couldn’t even afford a pint of milk (anonymous).”

We have seen cases where benefits and even wages are simply insufficient for any more than bare existence, where any unexpected expense becomes an emergency.  The type of emergency where a woman has to choose between food and sanitary towels.  Or where a single man counts the coins to check that he can switch on the kettle to heat up the water for the pot noodles he got from the food bank.

We fear that some of the most vulnerable people are entering into conditions of permanent precarity.  Holiday hunger continues to be an issue across the UK and period poverty prevents girls attending school.  In our research, we have talked to people with anxiety disorders who cannot food shop from high street grocers, managing to find support through these alternative systems of food provision.  All of which run on the kind hearts of generous and sometimes well-connected volunteers.

In part, the situation could be aided by a more socially-responsible food system.  For example, it is not okay for supermarkets to think that allowing food aid providers an opportunity to ask for food donations in their stores is enough.  Similarly, nor is it acceptable to not pay a living wage to their employees.  This is because employees might then become food aid users, in part due to the rising costs of living against what can only be described as precarious remuneration.  Gaps in the political system are also evident in the implementation of austerity measures and Universal Credit.  Controversially, those same politicians who supported such measures are now taking pictures by the supermarket donation boxes, for their latest Tweets and PR campaigns.

While we might think of Christmas as the season of goodwill in terms of encouraging a few extra donations, real structural change is needed to limit food insecurity in the UK.  We need to end benefit delays.  We need more jobs.  We need living wages to be taken seriously.”

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