Why food is not the answer to hunger in the UK

In a week when CPAG has published the brilliant new book Living hand to mouth – children and food in low income families by Rebecca O’Connell, Abigail Knight and Julia Brannen, it might seem strange to suggest that food is not the solution to hunger.

The book documents, in heart-breaking detail, children and families’ experiences of going without, being hungry to the point of experiencing pain and re-visiting an empty cupboard in the hope that some food might have appeared since the last inspection. It also recounts the everyday episodes of stigma and shame children experience from not being allowed their choice of food from their canteen-style free school meal or making excuses to avoid social occasions with friends because they can’t afford the costs involved.

Yes, the children and families in the book are going hungry. They should not be, and the fact that they are should make us rightly outraged that our friends and neighbours are living like this in 2019. We live in a country where food is plentiful – we don’t lack food, but some of us lack the resources to buy it. The same goes for money for rent, fuel to heat our homes and cook the food, nappies for children, clothes, household equipment, travel and toiletries.

We have to call it what it is – a consequence of poverty and having resources so seriously below average income that people are excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities. The poverty that denies families the dignity to make their own choices, leaves them constantly anxious about paying the bills or rent and excludes them from basic everyday activities such as meeting a friend for a coffee or occasional trip to the cinema is as much an injustice as hunger.

When well-intentioned people provide food banks or community cafes to address the level of deprivation that results in hunger, they are meeting an immediate, and often urgent, need. But food banks and food-based services are not the answer to the growing problem of people reaching rock bottom as a result of low paid, insecure work, inadequate and delayed benefits, huge benefit cuts and draconian sanctions.

When we identify hunger as the problem, this points to the solution being to provide food. And providing food is neither a lasting solution nor the right one to address the complex causes of poverty. But there are more significant risks of unintended consequences from lobbying government to take action on hunger or inadequate nutrition.

In the USA, cash payments to support people on low incomes have disappeared to be replaced by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP) providing public assistance now in the form of an electronic payment card (formerly food stamps). With the rationale of addressing the risk that people on low incomes have diets “that are inadequate in quantity and quality”, the payment card can only be used to buy food, with a long list of essential but ineligible items such as soap, paper products and household supplies.

With increasing pressure on the UK government to respond to concern about increasing hunger and poor nutrition, introducing a similar scheme here would be an apparently logical, but deeply damaging response. When we elevate the need for food above all other needs, such as housing, warmth, fuel, clothing and travel costs, we run the very serious risk of creating an argument for special treatment to meet these needs in the form of vouchers or other non-cash support.

As well as depriving people of the dignity of making at least some choice over how they manage the strain of living on a low income, food vouchers would increase stigma and seriously restrict people’s autonomy. They would provide food, but not the bus fare to get to the shops to buy it. Parents would not be able to buy a birthday present for their child and a child would not have spare change be able to take part in the school bake sale.

We must not sleepwalk our way into a disastrous policy response to hunger in the UK. It’s bad enough that the DWP is avoiding its responsibility by handing out charity food bank vouchers to people failed by maladministration and benefit cuts and delays. The one key way we can avoid this risk is to make sure that whenever we speak of the harm of hunger or food bank use, we make loud and clear its cause – poverty – and promote the right to a decent and adequate income above all else.