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End Hunger in the UK 

One in five children in the UK suffer food insecurity, which means they sometimes go hungry, one in 10 suffer real persistent hunger which of course will affect their learning, their health and their future. And children are everybody’s future. The majority of hungry households are in work. 67% children affected are in working families. Who is responsible for ending hunger, this growing scourge in what is up to now a rich country? This question was asked at a recent conference with all the major agencies trying to tackle this terrible situation in 21st century UK. And it could be any of us after a run of bad luck….

Civil society is doing their bit. `Magic breakfast’ is working to get school breakfasts over the line and providing a quarter of a million children with breakfast.  Food Ethics is working on business. There is work being done on food waste but a great deal more could be done, millions of tons of food just goes into land fill. The Trussell Trust has done its best to plug the gap with food banks which do wonderful work providing both basic food supplies and support and a listening ear, they are afraid of being quite overwhelmed and  to cope with the roll out of Universal Credit, which has been called `time bomb’, in January 2018. They have seen a growing need for their services over the last three years. There is also the danger of institutionalising this great voluntary effort of solidarity, as has happened in Canada. There are many local initiatives, school holiday meals and activities, a waste supermarket in Leeds, free food bags in restaurants in Scotland etc. Frank Field MP is working on a bill in Parliament aiming to end school holiday hunger.

The British government signed up to the UN sustainable goals promising to end hunger in 2015 having previously made a binding commitment under human rights law to secure adequate food for everyone in the UK in 1976. UNICEF pointed out recently that Britain is the worst country in Europe for children’s hunger. But who is responsible? Education, Health, work and Pensions Rural affairs? The government departments can pass the buck only too easily. There is lack of leadership on this basic issue and no obvious political will. Local government schemes have had to be cut back because of severe cuts to their finances and as they have to prioritise statutory schemes; this of course means a rapid rise in destitution and a much higher cost of interventions at the end.

Why is there hunger?
Poverty, lack of income! Why is there poverty? `Let’s be clear. The present surge in demand for food banks is caused by the coalition government’s austerity programme, the consequences of which are most acutely, disproportionately and unfairly borne by the most vulnerable members of our society. The root causes, including energy prices, water affordability, zero hour employment contracts, low wages, the bedroom tax and pay day lending, must be tackled if we are ever to see the number of people using food banks reduce.’ said the Labour candidate for Twickenham at the last election.

Food prices have gone up 30% in the last 5 years, real incomes are stagnant and falling, there has been a casualization of work and diminished workers’ rights. Also capping benefits at 1% rather than indexed to inflation and perhaps most importantly delays in receiving benefit entitlements, or because a person is under `sanction’ and the social fund has been removed. All this greatly increases levels of household debt, lack of control and all the attendant feelings of insecurity anxiety and inferiority.

What is to be done?
The human right to adequate food for everybody, young and old, is a basic moral imperative for government. There needs to be a universal entitlement policy and leadership at all levels, government included. Child benefit has a crucial role. Civil society needs to campaign for this and has already made a start, public opinion too needs to express its moral outrage, people power is important. Food insecurity needs to be properly measured, `we want to be counted’ say those who are suffering. Local authority safety schemes need to be restored. We need to emphasise our shared humanity; those affected need to share their stories so there need to be places to meet and listen they need to be involved in building the movement `nothing about us without us is for us’. All those with experience need to speak out, food bank volunteers, charities, churches, academics working on the issue, people working in the job centres, local groups all of us. We need to challenge the discourse, it is rarely `fecklessness’ research shows parents do all they can to feed their kids often going without themselves. First hand experience could go on local radio. Local constituents have a powerful voice, make it heard, lobby your MP… and in the meantime support your local food bank.

The conference, this October, had an energy, passion and commitment. Over the next year the coalition of groups who put on the conference, including Church Action on Poverty, will be building momentum for the campaign on holiday hunger, reforming social security, measuring food insecurity and `ensuring the government steps up to the plate in ending hunger’.

For more information visit: www.endhungeruk.org , #endhungeruk  

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