There are currently 5.8 million people living in extreme poverty in the UK. This means that almost a tenth of the population of the seventh richest country in the world is unable to afford basic everyday essentials – such as food.
This is a shocking figure, not least because food poverty is an issue that we would automatically associate with developing countries – not expect at such a scale on our own doorstep. The rising number of people living below the breadline in the UK is one that has hit the headlines more and more frequently in recent months as record highs in unemployment, welfare cuts and food price inflation have caused an enormous rise in hunger and hardship across the country. The UK Red Cross has started asking for food donations for the first time since World War II.
And those going hungry are not who you might imagine. Figures released recently showed that for the first time, more working households were living in poverty in the UK last year than non-working ones. The number of people relying on food aid exploded in 2013, and these are no longer just the homeless and the long-term unemployed – they are families in crisis. Households who following recession redundancies are now living off one income instead of two. Parents who are skipping meals so their children can eat and are still sending them to school hungry more often than not (one London survey found that 61% of teachers have given food to their students at their own expense). In other words, they are people who have fallen on desperate times and who now without emergency food supplies would be unable to feed themselves and their families.
Food is a basic human right. It is so easy to take our three meals a day for granted and so difficult to imagine what it must be like to have no idea how you will afford your next meal. Recent estimates suggest that a growing number of people have only £2.50/day to spend on food. This is less than a Starbucks coffee. Not enough for a lunch deal at Boots.
It is a vicious cycle that is very difficult to break. Your body requires food simply to function and missing even one meal can leave you feeling faint, ill, dehydrated – and these aren’t people who can’t afford the odd meal here and there, but who haven’t eaten properly in weeks or months. Without food performing the simplest tasks becomes an impossibility, let alone concentrating on a job. Not getting enough nutrients on a regular basis can result in a myriad of health problems – malnutrition, particularly for children, can have lifelong effects including an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. It is little wonder that the widespread hunger in the UK has been described as “a public health emergency”. And of course the danger is not just to physical but also to mental health.
The Trussell Trust tells stories of the people who visit their foodbanks – a mother forced to borrow a tin of soup from her neighbour just to feed her baby daughter; a father who considered resorting to stealing to stop his family starving; a student working two jobs to fund herself through college, suddenly made redundant and on the brink of collapse from malnutrition. For these people, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. Imagine yourself in this situation – struggling to survive, unable to afford the most basic nutrition; feeling vulnerable, ashamed, isolated, depressed. It’s a bleak picture. The social stigma of being forced to rely on foodbanks is strongly felt, and often people in need feel reluctant to turn to them as it feels like begging- and as a result they feel humiliated and degraded. The important thing for them to realise is that they are not alone, and the failure to provide for themselves and their families is not their failure but that of a system that has evolved so a working wage is no longer enough to afford regular meals.
Alongside these startling food poverty figures also comes the revelation from supermarket giant Tesco that it produced almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste in the first half of 2013. Besides the unthinkable environmental costs of this waste, when so many millions of people in our backyard are starving this is an obscene figure – and the solution seems obvious. Food supply organisation FareShare is working to create this solution by taking surplus food from major food retailers and using it to support communities to relieve food poverty; as with the foodbanks, the refuges and community centres they work with see people from all walks of life coming through their doors, united by the need for a hot meal.
However, a far more widespread recognition of the scale of the problem is needed. This is a serious crisis – whilst the increase in emergency foodbanks is providing an immediate and very necessary Band-aid to the problem, it is not a long-term solution to the UK’s critical failure to ensure that all its citizens have access to one of life’s most basic necessities.
If you need to find a food bank near you, there are organisations who can help:
You can find food banks near you via this interactive map on The Guardian website