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Posted on 2nd September 2021

The changing politics of hunger: reasons for hope and caution

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On how many occasions in the past decade has the politics of hunger produced any reason to be hopeful? Hardly any, until a few weeks ago.

Buried deep within a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), published in July, were data showing that the number of people needing to use a food bank at the beginning of this year (0.93 million, by our estimates) was 17% lower than before the pandemic (1.13 million). Better still, that number was 26% lower than the peak which was reached during last year’s first national lockdown (1.26 million). That equates to 200,000 and 330,000 fewer people on each respective measure.

What has led to such a sudden and significant shortening of food bank queues, following a decade of their lengthening? There are three answers, and they stem from the effective actions taken by the Government, civil society, and families over the past year and a half.

First, the scale and ambition of the policies introduced in the spring of 2020 to protect and create jobs, raise the incomes of people on Universal Credit, and maintain families’ access to food and activities during school holidays, have emphasised the importance of the Government’s role (both at a UK level and within the devolved nations) in eliminating the need for food banks.

The same logic applies in the United States where the stimulus cheques sent to families last December, and in March of this year, contributed to a 43% reduction in hunger rates. Amongst families with children, the recent introduction of child tax credits heralded another welcome reduction of 24%. 

Back in the United Kingdom, each of the policies mentioned above should arguably have gone further to protect even more people at risk of hunger; especially the self-employed without work, among whom food bank usage rocketed last year to five times its pre-pandemic level. That said, after a decade of cuts totalling £37 billion, the social safety net catching people above the abyss was made much, much stronger by the policies which were introduced in the spring of 2020 – practically all of the food banks within our network have drawn a direct link between the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit, for example, and a subsequent reduction in the numbers of people seeking their help.  

Second, through organisations like Feeding Britain, empowering new models of community-led initiatives have taken root in areas where people are struggling to access or afford food and other essentials. These initiatives – encompassing citizens’ supermarkets, pantries, food clubs, or food buses which bring affordable food to the heart of the community – are helping tens of thousands of people in working-class households stretch their budgets further and avoid relying on food banks or other forms of crisis provision. As Demos has found, they help people ‘immediately access better quality and healthier food that would have been out of their budget or unavailable in their local areas in a more dignified and empowering way’.

They are simultaneously improving people’s intake of fresh and healthy foods, boosting their mental and physical health, building greater financial resilience, strengthening their sense of belonging within the community, and addressing the root causes of insecurity in people’s lives. These outcomes are made possible by the combination of affordable food with on-site services that bust the limits which poverty so cruelly places on the lives of people who regularly find themselves only one large bill, broken fridge, school uniform cost, reduction in working hours, or benefit problem away from becoming reliant on food banks.

Third, there is the enduring strength of families. The IFS reports that among young people, who were particularly susceptible to hunger before the pandemic, both Government action as well as the lifeline of being able to seek help from a relative has reduced their need for food banks. We too have heard from young parents who, without support from other family members, would have been reliant on food banks. Families can, and so often do, provide a strong bulwark against some of the malevolent forces at play in people’s lives.

Nonetheless, that bulwark simply doesn’t exist for all too many people who become exposed to hunger after having already exhausted every possible avenue of support from family, friends, and other people in their lives. The same is true amongst others having to fight every one of these battles alone and without any informal support networks of their own. For them, food banks continue to represent a last line of defence against hunger.

Indeed, amid these three rays of hope remains the troubling finding from our analysis of the IFS report suggesting that, at the beginning of 2021, there were still 930,000 people having to rely on food banks to stave off hunger during a pandemic. In a separate survey conducted at the same time, by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), one in seven people with a long-term health condition reported that they had needed to use a food bank during the pandemic, as did nearly one in ten people whose income derived from a mixture of earnings and benefits. Moreover, the autumn and winter months of 2020 brought with them a 24 per cent increase (of four percentage points, from 17 to 21 per cent) in the overall proportion of poor and working-class households who had been unable to access or afford food during the pandemic, and who were going hungry or skipping meals as a result.

How can these concerning trends be addressed, and the more encouraging ones be both sustained and accelerated, so that ultimately nobody is hungry and reliant on food banks? Several public figures have called for a new Beveridge Report to provide the answers; namely, by outlining a vision of a post-pandemic welfare state that carries a similarly transformative spirit to the post-war one, envisaged by William Beveridge, which sought to guarantee a basic income through the primary means of National Insurance and National Assistance.

We will instead stick to the rule of three by considering all three major Reports that Beveridge published in the space of six years: on social security in 1942 (the Report to which most people refer); full employment in 1944; and voluntary action in 1948.

‘Putting first things first’, in Beveridge’s words, leads us to state the obvious: our social safety net must be strong enough to prevent as many people as possible from falling into the clutches of hunger. Yet many of the policies that have strengthened the safety net and helped to reduce the need for food banks over the past year – especially the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit, as well as the Local Support Grant used by councils to provide a last line of taxpayer-funded defence against hunger– are set to be cut or scrapped later this year.

As a bare minimum, these policies need to be both maintained in some form and then built upon so that all of us can afford to meet the basic costs of living without needing to use food banks. Hence the two bills that Feeding Britain’s supporters in Parliament are introducing to ensure both that benefits are calculated at a rate which affords a nutritious diet, and that disabled people are treated more fairly within the system.

Yet, as Beveridge noted in his second Report, on full employment, ‘the first Report [on social security] was not put forward as anything but a first step’, and ‘idleness even with bread demoralises’. In other words, the availability of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay must lie at the heart of an effective strategy for eliminating the root causes of need.  

Feeding Britain’s focus on full employment as an anti-hunger device owes itself to the feedback from our regional partners who serve the coalfield communities that stretch from South Tyneside to South Wales. Their fear is that, without an industrial policy which brings new sources of employment in manufacturing and other productive industries to those areas, and in doing so helps to eradicate long-term unemployment, the need for food banks in those areas will be passed down from one generation to the next – according to the FSA survey, more than one in four long-term unemployed people require help from food banks. Hence the two bills that Feeding Britain’s supporters in Parliament are introducing to secure Beveridge’s definition of full employment: ‘jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located, that the unemployed […] can reasonably be expected to take them; it means, by consequence, that the normal lag between losing one job and finding another will be very short’. 

But while the Government shouldn’t be let off the hook for its role in preventing hunger, nor should we as communities and citizens let ourselves off the hook either. Here’s where we draw upon the third Report, on voluntary action.

Beveridge was prompted to write this Report by the country’s ‘unhappiness’ and ‘unsatisfied needs’ that remained ‘untouched by social security and full employment’. He posed the question as to why, ‘with social security established by law and full employment established in practice, life in Britain is not better than we find it today’.

In beginning to sketch out a response, he saw the need for voluntary action (primarily through mutual aid, philanthropy, and self-help initiatives) to function as a buffer zone of sorts between the state and the market; a provider of services that built upon the basic income, which was to be guaranteed by the state, and enabled working-class families to navigate their way through the complexities of modern life, while forming a stronger layer of protection against life’s many risks and shocks.

Our view is that, with the right level of strategic direction and support from the Government, civil society today can play its part in building greater resilience against hunger and, in doing so, reduce still further the risk of dependence on food banks.

Let us take as an example the Holiday Activities and Food programme. This programme was created in response to a Feeding Britain bill that Frank Field introduced to Parliament, in an attempt to counter the spike in need for food banks during school holidays. It has this year delivered £220 million to communities across the whole of England so they can provide enriching activities with nutritious meals for children and families outside termtime.

Here we have widespread community action which is adding considerably to children’s happiness, health, and quality of life. Such action has been strengthened and made possible at a national scale by the Government. Here also is the basis upon which Feeding Britain is now proposing to ministers the creation of an Affordable Food Innovation Fund worth £10 million – accounting for a mere 1 per cent of the broader innovation funding recommended in Henry Dimbleby’s excellent National Food Strategy.

By helping to accelerate the grassroots development of initiatives built upon the combination of affordable food and on-site support services, the Government could prevent at least another 120,000 people in working-class households each year from having to rely on food banks. In doing so, it would be equipping communities themselves with another weapon that can be used to eliminate hunger from our country.

After a decade of almost continuously depressing news around the growing need for food banks, a fundamental lesson has emerged from the past year: with the Government, civil society, and individual citizens entering into a contract to turn their collective firepower against poverty and hunger, the rising demand for emergency food parcels is not inevitable and nor must it become entrenched in our society. That contract now needs to be renewed beyond this autumn, and to provide the basis for further action, if we are to emerge from the pandemic as a fairer and more just country that rids itself of hunger.

To borrow again from Beveridge, ‘putting first things first’ leads us to conclude that inherent within the terms of this contract is the need for an immediate reversal by the Government of its plan to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week in October. A failure to do so would represent a flouting of these terms, a ripping up of the contract, and a return to square one in the politics of hunger.

The likely result of such action? Considerable weight will be added to the burden being borne by people on the lowest incomes, as well as the food banks whose queues they will need to join if they are not to be hungry. The reward for abandoning such action? Another vital step towards the elimination of hunger and the intolerably high levels of need for food banks in our country.

Andrew Forsey, Feeding Britain