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Food poverty and food security

Why are people in a rich country using food banks? Is this a good thing?

Increasing numbers in the UK are using emergency food provision to get by, often through ‘food banks’; our recent research for Defra and others has tried to look at what is going on and why. Economic austerity, including changes to social security entitlement and levels, and the rising essential costs of living, including food prices, have left more and more people struggling to sustain access to enough good food for a healthy life. These needs have generated remarkable response from concerned citizens and community groups to buy extra and thus offer free food and other support to those in need, through food banks. Food which would otherwise go to waste or anaerobic digestion is also being diverted to charitable outlets.

These responses readily mask or divert attention from the underlying, structural issues driving the problem. It is too easy to ignore the social and political challenges which these experiences illustrate by attention to numbers using food banks and by celebration of local support. The difficulties of pinning down robust evidence can mean people’s experiences of deep anxiety, shame and continual misery, not to say inadequate food and poor health, are too readily dismissed as outcomes of personal incompetence over domestic economy – an age-old, unsubstantiated claim. Indeed, the current twist is to question the legitimacy of access to charitable response, and the direction of cause and effect.

Whether or not ‘food poverty’ is a useful construct with plausible indicators, government and society need to take its lived realities seriously in a rich country such as this one, and not allow devolution of responsibility to address it on to unaccountable, variable and (as such evidence as exists would suggest) inadequate response to the structural challenge of enabling all to eat decently and well.

Our recent research has tried to disentangle some of the evidence and issues:

A new All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty in the UK has set up an Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty 

Liz Dowler gave evidence in a meeting hosted by the Social Science division of the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology in the House of Commons in April 2014; and in person to the Inquiry on July 1st 2014, again at the House of Commons. Liz also submitted written evidence, and has spoken at a number of public and academic meetings on the topic; recent publications include:

  • Caraher, M. and Dowler, E. (2014) ‘Food for Poorer People: Conventional and “Alternative” Transgressions?’ ch 11 in: Goodman, M., Sage, C. (eds) Food Transgressions: Making sense of contemporary food politics, Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Dowler, E. (2014 in print) ‘Food banks and food justice in “Austerity Britain”’ ch in: G.Riches and T. Silvasti (eds) First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Lambie-Mumford, H. and Dowler, E. (2014 in print) ‘Rising use of ‘food aid’ in the United Kingdom’ special issue of British Food Journal.
  • Dowler, E. and Lambie-Mumford, H. (2015 forthcoming) (eds) ‘Hunger, Food Poverty and Social Policy in Austerity’, special issue Social Policy and Society.