The UK has the world’s sixth-largest economy, yet one in five people in our nation live below the poverty line. Recent figures that show that the UK is the most unequal country in the UK in regards to wages are perhaps, then, unsurprising.
Foodbank operator Trussell Trust released figures illustrating that there were over one million users of foodbanks during the 2014-2015 financial year. This was a 19% increase from the previous year. Another eye-opening fact is that the Trussell Trust currently runs 445 foodbanks across the nation – this number was just 56 back in 09/10, before the start of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. Experts warn that the statistics behind foodbank usage are just the tip of the iceberg.
Rising cost of living
So why are more than 13 million people in the UK living in poverty? The Trussell Trust data showed that 44% of foodbank referrals are due to delays in benefit payments. Other factors that push families and individuals to seek support include the rising cost of living and the controversial bedroom tax. Financial insecurity is also a key issue – just ask one of the 1.4 million Britons who currently work a zero-hours contract.
Things aren’t set to improve overnight either. Yes, the media champions the fall in unemployment, but wage growth has faltered, reflecting the trend in shockingly low wages and ‘unfair’ contracts. So what can be done? Foodbanks are not a long-term solution. They are spread unevenly across the country, rely on public donations that are not always consistent, and only offer non-perishable food goods. This raises another issue – nutrition.
Many people find it far cheaper, and more convenient, to feed their families with processed foods, which are often high in fat, salt and sugar. We are constantly told the importance of healthy eating and exercise, but a portion of people out there simply cannot afford to serve their families balanced meals. A study from the British Heart Foundation last year found that 39% of adults sacrificed health benefits for cost when doing their shopping. Two-thirds said that they want to eat healthier, but cited cost as a hindrance.
If food prices remain high and people continue to eat badly, diet-related problems such as diabetes and obesity will continue to be rife, piling yet more pressure on the already-stretched NHS, which in turn leads to more cuts. The cycle, as you can see, is vicious.
So what can be done? One idea is to push supermarkets into donating their unsold but still edible to charities or families in need. This is a draft law proposed by MPs in France – perhaps if successful, Britain could follow suit. Mayor of London Boris Johnson has just announced £300,000 of funding for his ‘Social Supermarket’ scheme, in which unwanted stock from big retailers will be sold on cheaply to those on low incomes. The incentive is a start to tackling the 4.1 million tonnes of food wasted in the grocery retail supply chain alone each year.
Making a difference
Across the UK people are playing their part to make a difference. The Live Below the Line challenge, in which people live on a budget of £1 a day for five days, is increasingly popular. A club night run by Manchester DJ Rich Reason recently allowed punters to pay their admission via food donations, to be donated to foodbanks across the city. Leeds-based chef Adam Smith has started a worldwide movement with his Real Junk Food Project – opening up ‘pay as you feel’ cafes that use produce that otherwise would have been thrown away by supermarkets, foodbanks or independent grocers.
So how can you help? If you are reading this as someone who can afford to sustain yourself and your loved ones, you should consider supporting your local foodbank. You can find a map of Trussell Trust foodbanks here. If you need some inspiration when it comes to eating healthy on a budget, check out food blogger Jack Monroe’s fantastic website: http://agirlcalledjack.com/.
What is the answer to the UK’s poverty crisis? What will the next five years hold for those families who are struggling? Can our foodbanks survive under increased pressure?