“We need a recipe to solve food poverty”

By Laura Sandys, The Spectator, 20th December 2012

At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, the Opposition touted food banks as evidence of Britain’s regression into a Dickensian era. With 128,000 visitors passing through the Trussell Trust’s doors last year, today was not the first Wednesday on which the Government has been blamed for more children going hungry and more families struggling to put food on the table. But why are food banks multiplying at a rate of three a week and are they really a workable solution?

One answer is that organisations such as the Trussell Trust can now place their leaflets in jobcentres. In addition, unlike under Labour, food banks can now receive referrals from a range of sources such as Community Nursery Nurses, Headteachers, and Health Visitors. But there are also structural reasons for a surge in food banks.

For decades, food and politics have been kept quite separate. Supermarkets have been left to deliver cheap food and shoppers have come to expect the shelves to be piled high with asparagus in December and parsnips in June. Food policy was forgotten and the average home came to waste 30 per cent of the food in their kitchens. But this Golden Era is over. With our food system increasingly globalised, our high reliance on imports, climate shocks, and populations in South East Asia following in our calorific footsteps, over the last 5 years, food prices have risen by 32 per cent whilst certain items such as potatoes have rocketed in price by 116 per cent.

With food prices likely to rise further we need a recipe for a perfect storm. Not only will a potential 6 per cent year-on-year rise drive up inflation, it will also be a nasty thorn in the side of the Chancellor as he grapples with the Treasury’s annual benefits bill.

And it is families that matter the most. More and more frequently, parents in my constituency are telling me they’re skipping meals to ensure their children aren’t going to school hungry. But I’m afraid I can’t join my Parliamentary colleagues in their congratulatory praise of food banks. They certainly offer a life-line to those at a point of crisis. But they are a symptom not a long-term solution to food poverty.

What we require are innovative means to support families on the lowest incomes who are really struggling. We need a suite of policies to ensure families are resilient and able to manage and adapt to food price hikes.

The food industry will need to recognise its wider responsibility to society and consider how it can encourage families to make sensible choices on a tight budget. Too many families believe the age-old myth that healthy food is more expensive than high-calorie, high-carb food. A public information campaign to promote de-bunk this myth would make a real difference.

But cooking from scratch requires skills and know-how. If we are to really dodge a Dickensian back-slide into nutritional recession, Government will need to recognise the invaluable importance of children learning from the earliest age how to prepare food and cook balanced tasty meals on a budget. Substituting more expensive or out of season ingredients can help cut costs and opting for less used meat cuts of fish can help reduce the weekly spend. Food must be put firmly back on the curriculum in our primary schools. Being able to feed yourself on a budget is an essential life skill and arguably as important as numeracy, literacy or science.

With food prices only going in one direction – up – we need skills, Government commitment, and industry will-power to ensure food-banks do not become mainstream or a reality of economic austerity.