on food poverty and economic policy: connecting the dots

On Monday, an Oxfam report revealed that the three main providers of food aid in the United Kingdom gave over 20 million meals to hungry people in the fiscal year of 2013/14:  a whopping 54% more than they gave the year before. The report found that while food banks are generally a service of last resort, people on low incomes and in precarious work increasingly have no other choice. Many find themselves forced to choose between paying rent and paying for food to eat.

Those who do turn to food banks (the majority of them funded by The Trussell Trust) can expect to receive enough to feed their household for a minimum of three days. The Trust describes their packages as “nutritionally balanced.” But these packages are supposed to be emergency food –and that means while they may include enough calories for the short term, they do not contain adequate fiber or protein for an appropriate diet over the long run. This sort of assistance is meant for people in crisis: those on the brink of full-blown disaster.

In a food bank, crisis is treated like an acute condition: it’s severe and threatening, but it will pass.

In reality, crisis has become the new normal. Low and stagnant wages are the norm, job security is a distant dream, housing prices continue to climb, and benefit schemes have been “reformed” beyond recognition.

And so, more and more people are driven into poverty, with few avenues for escape. Many who depend on food banks to feed themselves and their families are the working poor, seldom covered by unions, and thus especially vulnerable to changes in working conditions that undermine their ability to support themselves, whether by cutting their hours or forcing them to work longer for lower pay, barely earning enough to set aside £6 a week to spend on groceries.

Thus, the breadline grows ever longer.

The dramatic increase in reliance on food banks in the United Kingdom isn’t new. The Trussell Trust has advertised “record numbers” of clients every year for the past four years, with numbers more that doubling each year since 2010/2011, and trebling this past year.

These conditions are not accidental. They are a direct result of government policies—polices that drive wages down and keep them low, weaken workers’ ability to influence the conditions of their employment, allowing employers to squeeze more and more profit out of less and less labour.

Like the illnesses it causes, crisis is chronic.

Oxfam’s report recommends that the government re-instate the safety net principle, and strengthen what remains of the welfare state. While Oxfam’s specific policy recommendations are laudable, they are characteristic of a conciliatory Left that asks politely for concessions, hoping that an appeal to the decency and humanity of those in power will be adequate motivation for the government to intervene.

Unfortunately, that hope is dangerously naive. Government rhetoric focuses on getting people back into work, evading larger questions about the type of jobs on offer. Precarious, low-wage work with no guaranteed hours generate profits for employers; they will not lift anyone out of poverty.

Those of us who campaign for public health should hold no illusions about the current government’s dedication to ending hunger, or indeed ending any poverty at all. We would do well to remember the words of 19th century German physician, Rudolf Virchow, who held that “Medicine is a social science and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”  Food banks will not and cannot end food poverty – we need an economic system that puts people before profits to do that.

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