I spent this afternoon at a really interesting conference organised by Can Cook searching for solutions to food poverty in Liverpool. There is so much amazing work going on in the city to support people and help them, from a comprehensive network of food banks to initiatives in schools and communities to help people learn to cook and make nutritious meals on a budget. Many of us at the conference are shocked at the increasing numbers of people relying on food aid – the number of people accessing Trussell Trust foodbanks has tripled this year. How did we come to this in the 7th richest nation in the world in the 21st Century?
Even those of us who work in food banks know that they can and should only and always be emergency support for people in crisis, and should not become embedded in our culture. Thinking long-term, I’m impressed by the cooking projects in the city, teaching skills, building community, providing resources. Equipping people is necessary if we want to tackle poverty. Lots of us would like to see the tinned and dried food provided in a food bank food parcel added to with fresh food, and some food banks have successfully incorporated fresh food into what they give out. The idea of food aid + was described by Can Cook. They have asked chefs to create 10 meals with just 15 ingredients, and suggest we could ask for these ingredients to be donated by the public in the same way that food items are donated now. I foresee logistical difficulties, but it sounds good in principle.
But I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter. It does not answer the question ‘how did we come to this?’ The bottom line is that people are relying on food aid because they do not have enough money to buy food to feed their families. And sometimes people don’t have enough money to buy gas or electricity to cook said food or warm their homes. This is what we need to address. The reasons are varied and complex, including debt, benefit delays, benefit changes and sanctions, the rising cost of living, and not least new pressures on household budgets from the bedroom tax (sorry, withdrawal of the spare room subsidy) and council tax contributions. But as someone said this afternoon, one of the reasons is certainly not national poverty. The UK is a rich country, and the problem is inequality.
I read with horror that David Cameron has recently given a speech saying that austerity is the new normal. Austerity is a big con, and a façade for the deliberate shrinking of the state. While services are being cut and support for the vulnerable in society is being removed, there is still enough money in the treasury for tax cuts for the richest and for businesses. People with mental health problems and disabilities find their benefits are stopped for failing to jump through enough hoops, while businesses are happily avoiding paying between £45 and £100 billion in tax jumping through as many tax loopholes as their accountants can find, according to Church Action on Poverty. Where is the commitment to a Living Wage, so that people who are in work can actually afford a reasonable lifestyle without relying on state or food bank top ups?
The most striking comment of the afternoon, for me, was a remark about free school meals, during a presentation about the School Food Plan. In schools where universal free school meals were piloted, levels of attainment across all economic backgrounds improved. In other words, even children who might be expected to be well fed already benefitted from free school meals. But even more strikingly, the biggest improvements were observed for the poorest children. Not surprising, you say, but actually, these were the children who were already entitled to free school meals. So it wasn’t the introduction of free school meals which made the difference for these children, but the universality of the benefit. This is a demonstration of the difference that can be made when we truly work together for the good of all, for the common good.