Sooner rather than later the UK is going to have to face up to a food poverty crisis, says Joseph Kelly

On last night’s BBC Question Time, well known anti-poverty campaigner Jack Munroe warned that the deepening cost of living crisis hasn’t “fallen out of a clear blue sky”, but is the result of more than a decade of stripping back on public services. As a food writer and author of a number of books on ‘austerity recipes’ that can be made on a tight budget, Munroe has also worked extensively with food banks so can rightly claim to be on the front line of Britain’s looming food crisis.

For most of the public, global and home economic circumstances are only just beginning to impact on the food shopping habits we’ve all become used to. Having worked our way through the Second World War and rationing, we entered the expansionism of the 1960s determined that subsequent generations would not have to endure the privations they grew up with. In terms of the food chain, a range of factors coincided that brought us into the world of mass production, distribution and consumption. Today we make our way to the local supermarket to enjoy a bewildering and largely unnecessary range of products and goods that we take completely for granted and we consider it a fundamental right to be able to choose from a hundred brands of toothpaste, or a freezer full of countless different presentations of pasta.

A few weeks ago the Catholic politician Ann Widdecombe caused uproar after saying on the BBC’s Politics Live show that there is no ‘given right’ to low food prices even though ever more UK families are struggling to buy basic food essentials. The former Brexit party MP was asked what she would say to consumers who couldn’t even afford to pay for something as basic as a cheese sandwich.

“Well then you don’t do the cheese sandwich,” Widdecombe replied. “None of it’s new. We’ve been through this before. The problem is we’ve been decades now without inflation, we’ve come to regard it as some kind of given right.”

Widdecombe may have been desperately out of touch with the cheese sandwich bit, but she’s correct that British society has come to see prosperity and not having to be concerned about making ends meet as a ‘given right’. But who persuaded us of that? As Widdecombe pointed out herself on the same programme, prices won’t come down until inflation comes down, and “you will not get inflation coming down if you continue to have inflationary wage rises.” It’s a familiar old argument that basically reveals that there’s a margin of profit within the system, and any upsetting of that has consequences. This is fine if the price of a widget stays fixed forever, so manufacturers can maintain their prices, consumers always pay the same, and employees therefore never need a pay rise. But everyone knows the world can never work like that, and we vote in legislators with superiors skills to ours in this area to ensure that the economic fluctuations that inevitably occur don’t impact too severely on our daily lives.

Ms Widdecombe may not like it, but demands for pay rises are not fuelled by avarice, but by an increasing inability of the populace to maintain the standards of living that the politicians we have voted for promised us. If those promises were based on completely unrealistic expectations of what an economy can actually support, then it hardly seems fair that those who put us there should be demanding that the public pick up the tab. In the end, inflation is a failure of a government to the job it’s paid to do.

Of course that won’t help the many people now finding themselves in situations of genuine food poverty, or food insecurity as it’s more commonly called. As of last September, the government’s own figures revealed that in 2020/21, some 4.2 million people (6% of the UK population) were in food poverty, including 9% of children. A year on that’s undoubtedly got a lot worse. According to the Food Foundation thinktank last month, one in five (22%) of households reported skipping meals, going hungry or not eating for a whole day in January, up from 12% at the equivalent point in 2022.

We’re all familiar with the consequences of food poverty when it comes to its impact on what we all used to call third world countries; for many of us our secure and prosperous upbringing in the post war years was marked by the notion of giving of our wealth to help alleviate famine and disasters in far-flung countries. It was a generation that had forgotten the strictures of the previous generation, and had no concept of frugality, let alone personal poverty.

For most, food insecurity in the UK is still no more than outrage at the shrinkage of a pack of Lurpak butter, or the rocketing price of a jar of coffee – but food still goes on the table, petrol goes in the car and new clothes get bought.

Most estimates put the number of UK citizens currently in serious difficulties as well over 10% of the population and growing fast, which should be of deep concern to even the most callous of observers, as it has the capacity to disrupt society at the very deepest of levels.

Experiencing difficulty in getting enough nutritious food for a healthy and secure life can have a devastating impact on society – from overwhelming our already heavily under-resourced health services, to impacting on the crime and justice system, mental health resources, child welfare, the benefits system and even increasing employment figures. In the longer term there are also potentially negative consequences for UK population figures and social demographics, because food poverty impacts directly on the choices that parents and families are able to make about their future.

As Britain worked its way through the Covid pandemic, Catholic charities found themselves increasingly having to step in to provide foodbanks and other support services to a UK population under this increasing strain. That work has not subsided. For instance, Caritas Westminster estimates that some 2.3 million people in London alone are living in poverty and “may be forced to make impossible choices – to buy food or to buy other essentials”.

Across the UK Catholic organisations and dioceses run hundreds of local volunteer-led food projects, including food banks and pantries, food collections, food sharing and cooking initiatives, all aimed at alleviating a fast-growing crisis.

However, there is another consideration. Research published by the University of Hertforshire yesterday has shown that the redistribution of good-to-eat surplus food to families in need by Fairshare, the UK’s largest food redistribution charity, had a social and economic value of £225 million a year for the UK economy, and made significant savings to the NHS, childcare and food waste disposal costs. Through their redistribution work, Fairshare is also said to have supported other important services such as domestic violence shelters, older people’s lunch clubs – which tackle both hunger and loneliness – and school breakfast and after school clubs, and there was a significant reduction in hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease and mental health support.

Whilst this makes for commendable reading, there’s a strong argument to say that the vitally important work being doing by this rapidly-expanding network of support organisations is both indicative of an even deeper economic malaise, and a warning that the more charitable organisations do, the more the government is likely to leave it to them to fill the growing fiscal gap. No-one’s going to suggest that UK charities should hold back on the incredible work they do, but that has to go hand in hand with calling out others vigorously for what they are not doing. Whatever the public narrative, the government is acutely aware of what’s going on, and it needs to be persuaded into meaningful action before the social consequences become too severe to deal with.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian