A group of high-profile academics has written an open letter warning that food poverty has become an “emergency” in the UK. Use of food banks has tripled in the past year alone, but the government says this does not mean more people are starving.
“This has all the signs of a public health emergency that
could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive
action,” said the letter, co-signed by six leading public health
experts, and addressed to the prestigious British Medical Journal
The authors, led by David Taylor-Robinson from the Medical Research Council, speculate that “the rising cost of living and increasingly austere welfare reforms” from the Conservative-Liberal government are at fault.
“The effects of these policies on nutritional status in the most vulnerable populations urgently need to be monitored…Access to an adequate food supply is the most basic of human needs and rights.”
Official statistics show that the number of those admitted to hospitals with malnutrition has risen from 3,161 in 2008/09 to 5,499 in 2012/13.
Even those who are not on the verge of starvation are suffering. The signatories cite a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that claimed that families are spending 8.5 percent less on food than before the recession, and there has been a “reduction in quality” of produce consumed during a “substitution towards processed sweet and savoury food and away from fruit and vegetables” particularly by poorer and single-parent families.
Leading food bank charity The Trussell Trust, which operates 400 outlets, says that three times more people have asked it for help than just a year ago. Nearly 350,000 people have received at least three days’ worth of meals from it in the 12 months leading to October.
British Red Cross has also started its first food aid collection drive since
World War II.
The government has not only refused to take blame for increased food poverty, but has questioned that there has been an increase at all.
“The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks,” said an official statement in response to the open letter.
“In fact, our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with the universal credit making three million households better off - the majority of these from the bottom two fifths of the income scale.”
Government officials have said that the rise of food banks – which are made up from private donations - has actually been the result of greater generosity from private citizens, and charities opening new access points. Another issue is that of entitlement to receiving meals from the food banks. In order to be given a free meal, a needy individual has to be issued a voucher by a local official, policeman, or church minister. In recent months, employment office workers have begun to offer more food vouchers, whereas before, they might have handed out cash benefits.
But no definitive, non-ideological estimations of the scale of the food poverty problem are likely at least until the publication of an official Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) report on the issue commissioned last February, which has been completed but not released to the public.
The authors of the BMJ letter and The Trussel Trust have both hit out at the government for failing to publish the report – supposedly finished in July - implying that it is hiding the devastating effect of its welfare reforms, which include stricter criteria for receiving state aid and greater penalties for those who fail to comply with them.
In response Defra has said that it is simply conducting the “necessary review and quality assurance process” before publication.