Over the past few months, an increasing number of articles have painted a portrait of hunger in the UK today. What statistics are available show that increasingly families are struggling. There is rightly concern about children going to school hungry because there isn’t food at home and we should be outraged that parents are going without food to make sure their children eat. It is time that we also focus on the impact of food poverty – of lack of food and poor diet – on older people and consider what we can do as a Party to help them both now and in the future.
Figures from the growing number of foodbanks document breadline Britain. Data from the Trussell Trust which runs a large and growing network of foodbanks across the UK demonstrates that the majority of people they feed are families of one shape or another with children representing almost 40,000 of the 110,000 people fed by the charity between April and September this year.
I think it is vital that we stress the pressures on families. However, it seems to me that there is something missing in this picture and it is part of why we have to remember that foodbanks are a very particular (and I hope temporary) part of the solution to hunger and malnutrition in the UK.
The Trussell Trust says that less than 1% of their clients are over 65. This figure is similar to figures provided by other charities such as the Matthew Tree Project who run a number of ‘food stores’ in Bristol based on a slightly different model. The bottom line is, however, that whatever model of foodbank you look at, the number of clients is increasing dramatically, but the proportion of over-65 year olds is disproportionately low.
One possible reason I have been given for this is that the Minimum Income Guarantee means that pensioners on low income generally have slightly higher low incomes than other groups of people on low incomes. If a pensioner is a homeowner, the mortgage is probably paid off and pensioners are generally less likely to take on crippling levels of consumer debt. While this is true, pensioners are facing the same rising costs of living as the rest of us including rising fuel bills and rising food costs. Almost half of all pensioners live alone and face social isolation. Additionally, single or widowed pensioners may find it harder to cook for themselves, or not feel it is worth cooking a proper meal just for one person.
I am proud of the fact that Labour government dramatically reduced pensioner poverty. However, overall 17% of pensioners are on low incomes (two thirds of them women). This means that the 1% figure implies that the current delivery model of foodbanks doesn’t work for older people. The stigma of going to a charity for food is likely to be even higher with old people. Clearly mobility issues may prevent access. To get food from a foodbank you have to get to there in the first place. And most people who go to a foodbank are in crisis – the model is designed for short term aid.
People have also told me that the lower numbers of pensioners accessing food via foodbanks must mean that the need is not there, or that pensioners are not suffering food poverty. It would be nice to think that this is the case. However, malnutrition levels in pensioners appear – not surprisingly – to mirror levels of low income. So overall in the older population, 15% of people over 65 are malnourished. Malnutrition levels are higher in areas of higher deprivation. For example, in Southwark and Lewisham 30% of pensioners admitted to hospital are suffering from malnutrition mirroring the higher levels of pensioner poverty in these areas.
Labour run Southwark Council is halving the cost of meals-on-wheels at a time when a number of other areas are seeing the cost increase dramatically in the context of huge cuts to local authority budgets. It is this type of intervention that is needed if the largely hidden shame of pensioner malnutrition in Britain today is to be addressed effectively.
However, malnutrition is only one aspect of the problem and meals-on-wheels is only a small part of the solution. We need to establish a Labour vision for old age that addresses access to food, fuel and sufficient money to live on. This needs to be tied in to an integrated model for social care so pensioners are able to have the decent lifestyle they deserve and one we can all look forward to rather than dread.
Fiona Twycross is a Labour Londonwide Assembly Member and is currently leading an investigation in to food poverty in London on behalf of the London Assembly www.london.gov.uk/foodpoverty