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Last week the Newcastle council for Voluntary Service released a report on Food Poverty in Newcastle that focuses on the voluntary and community sector response.  

What does hunger look like in the UK?

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a relatively stable food system millions of people in the UK are regularly going hungry.

Food insecurity levels in the UK are among the worst – if not the worst– in Europe, especially for children.

Nationally food bank use is up almost four-fold since 2012, and there are now about 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis. The UK’s largest food bank is in Newcastle West End and provides food parcels to 46,000 people every year.

Certain groups are at particular risk of suffering from food poverty. These include asylum seekers who have just £37.75 a week to live on and are not allowed to seek employment whilst their claim is being processed; people with no recourse to public funds who are unable to receive most forms of state assistance such as free school meals or Healthy Start vouchers; and finally people with disabilities, the largest provider of emergency food aid in the UK found that “people dealing with a disability or health condition are far more likely to receive emergency food from a food bank” than any other group.

As the Newcastle CVS report highlights, people who are going hungry in Newcastle are no longer only those who are associated with homelessness or having fallen on particularly hard times but also people who are in employment. This is echoed by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that found that half of all people in poverty have at least one member of the household who is in paid employment.

What has led to this rise?

Some of the key factors that have been identified as leading to the recent surge in demand for emergency food aid are the recent changes to the tax and welfare system in the UK. These changes include excessive Universal Credit waiting times; delays in receiving payments; debt and loan repayments; lack of automatic split payments under Universal Credit; and welfare benefit sanctions.

Welfare reforms have hit hardest where reliance on benefits has been greatest and the most affected places are older industrial areas, many of which are located in the North East of England.

Normalisation of hunger and poverty

The normalisation of food poverty is another issue that is of increasing concern, as stated by Newcastle CVS Chief Executive Sally Young:

There is a real danger of normalising what should be an abnormal, and unacceptable, situation.” 

Indeed it was only a few years ago that very few people were aware of food banks or needed to use them, and yet now it is a common occurrence to see donation baskets for food banks in most major supermarkets or volunteers with collection buckets by train stations. In fact just last year one major national supermarket developed a scheme whereby stickers where placed on certain items so as to encourage donations to food banks.

In November of last year, the UN special rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Phillip Alston visited Newcastle during his visit to the UK and spoke to those suffering from poverty. In his interim report he relayed stories of children showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools that are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home with the pupils because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. 

What needs to be done?

The UK government ought to be taking steps towards the progressive realisation of our right to food. This might involve ensuring that people with mobility issues are able to access food in a dignified manner, or ensuring that wages and/or welfare payments are at a sufficient level to enable individuals to maintain an adequate standard of living.

There also needs to be special provisions made for certain groups who may need additional assistance in realising their right to food. For example as outlined in Articles 25 and 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,  which the UK has signed and ratified, states have a duty to provide people with disabilities with an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health.

In order to address food poverty and reduce the multiple inequalities that result from it, the Government could start by assessing the cumulative impact of tax, social security and public spending decisions since 2010, reverse the benefits cap, remove the two-child limit for all families, and crucially restore the link between social security entitlements and the actual cost of living.

We live in unequal societies but inequality is not inevitable. It is the product of government decisions, actions and omissions that ignore human rights laws and principles,

Koldo Casla – Just Fair policy director.

Follow the conversation online using the hashtag #PoorandHungry