‘Food poverty is just poverty, isn’t it?’

There is a reluctance sometimes to acknowledge that food poverty should be treated as a special case. ‘It’s just poverty,’ people say. ‘Surely we need to be tackling all forms of poverty, not dividing it up into types.’

It is undoubtedly true that food poverty is just one aspect of poverty, and that our aim should be to vanquish poverty in all its forms. Yet to say that food poverty should not be singled out is a failure to understand the nature of hunger. Here’s why food poverty requires special attention:

  1. Unlike some other forms of poverty, food poverty is an immediate crisis demanding an immediate solution. People without food need to be fed now, not after a lengthy political process.
  2. People suffering food poverty have no other resources. Once you get to the stage where you cannot feed your children, you have already been through pretty much every other manifestation of poverty. You are at rock bottom.
  3. Food poverty must be fought as a breach of human rights. The right to food is protected under the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the UK is a signatory.
  4. Health professionals have warned that the growth in food poverty has ‘all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive action’. Like any public health emergency, therefore, it needs immediate, targeted strategies.
  5. The people most likely to need emergency food aid are those with a health problem or a disability. Should we let them go hungry while we wage a campaign for the abolition of poverty? We should not.
  6. Children, too, bear the brunt of food poverty. It affects their ability to learn, their physical growth and their mental well-being. Children get only one shot at childhood: we can at least make sure that it isn’t blighted by hunger.
  7. A teacher at a Feeding Britain event described how creative children become in covering up why they don’t have food with them at school, rather than admit that there’s a problem. The whole nature of hunger means it’s not going to be raised much by the people experiencing it.
  8. This stigma around food poverty means we need proactive measures to tackle it, ones that treat vulnerable people with sensitivity – hence policies such as universal free school meals, wraparound holiday care and Meals on Wheels.
  9. Clearly other forms of poverty, such as fuel poverty and poor housing, have highly adverse impacts too. But food poverty is both the most pressing, in terms of its impact, and the easiest to solve.
  10. Food poverty definitions vary, but most of them encompass not just lack of food but nutritionally inadequate diets – sometimes a result of high food prices, of food ‘deserts’, or of lack of culinary knowledge. These are all issues that need targeted solutions.

The best solution to food poverty would undoubtedly be to eradicate poverty altogether, and that is what we should be working towards. But we are not going to achieve that tomorrow, or even the day after, and in the meantime many people are hungry. So let’s have a ‘food first’ policy. Once we have taken the worry of food off the table, we can help to resolve other, more complex issues.

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