Britain is the seventh richest nation in the world yet we face a growing epidemic of hidden hunger, particularly in children. The reality of parents unable to feed their children is one of the starkest examples of the cost of living crisis faced by many British families.
The Tory-led Government is out of touch with families worried about rising food prices. Ministers need to wake up to the human cost of their failed economic policies and change course now. Last year 350,000 people, including 127,000 children, relied on food handouts from the Trussell Trust, the country’s largest foodbank charity. This is up from 42,000 in 2009/10.
The new report from Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty – Walking the Breadline – shows that half a million people are now turning to emergency food aid and foodbanks for help. The report blames rising demand on the Government’s austerity plans, changes to the benefits system and falling incomes.
Over the last 18 months, I have visited foodbanks in Yorkshire, Hastings, Harlow, Bradford, Lancashire, Halesowen, and London working to ensure families get the help they need. Last week in Rotherham I met volunteers from Food Aware who are working to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families in need. I’ve heard stories of foodbanks limiting parcels to families and pensioners. Of mums taking their children to grandparents at tea time for feeding. On every visit, the message is clear: the situation is getting worse, with demand growing exponentially; and food bank users are no longer the homeless, or people with drug and alcohol problems. The biggest demand is now coming from families struggling with debt and unemployment or facing benefits delays.
But what has been the Government’s response?
David Cameron is evasive about why he won’t meet foodbank users whilst Conservative MPs continue the charade that this is an example of the Big Society in action. But as Niall Cooper, chief executive of Church Action on Poverty, says: “Foodbanks are not designed to, and should not, replace the normal safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support.”
I have been impressed by the dedication and ingenuity of foodbank volunteers wherever I have been. They represent the British desire to help our neighbours and to be the Good Samaritan in time of need, yet foodbanks remain a sticking plaster solution. The cost of living crisis is affecting families across the nation. Defra figures show lower income households are eating 30 per cent less fresh fruit and vegetables compared to before the recession and food price hike in 2008. That could have major health consequences, especially for children.
Labour supports the call by Which? for clearer food labelling and more transparent pricing in supermarkets to help families make the best buys for their budget. John Denham has proposed a bill which would give shoppers instant, online access to supermarket prices, product by product and store by store. This would enable scrutiny of special offers, multi-buys, ‘bogofs’ and other price promotions and inform shoppers how much more or less it would cost them to shop at different stores. Labour is working with FareShare to encourage the supermarkets and food manufacturers to reduce their food waste by ensuring more surplus food is made available to people via foodbanks. We are currently consulting on reducing waste and better resource resilience in materials as part of Your Britain. Would a ban on food waste to landfill, or a food waste hierarchy which starts with redistribution and ends with anaerobic digestion maximise the amount of in-date food going to foodbanks and people who are hungry?
We will continue to urge the government to support Labour’s plan for jobs and growth but families need a government that is on their side as they struggle with rising living costs and the harsh consequences of the Tories economic policy. When it comes to food poverty, we are most certainly not “all in it together”.
Mary Creagh is the Shadow Environment Secretary and Labour MP for Wakefield