That a rich country like Britain has the level of food poverty that Liz Dowler, Sheila Turner and Barbara Dobson outline in this excellent but sobering book is frankly a disgrace. My mother assured me when I was in my 20s that I would grow out of being angry about such things. Three decades later, I am surely a case of arrested development, for my anger at Britain accepting levels of food poverty which are unacceptable not only continues but grows. I dare you not to be angry at the evidence before you, too. Britain has the worst levels of food insecurity in Europe. We have the highest rates of diet-related ill-health, particularly heavy among low income groups. And yet our farming is in crisis and farm incomes are at their lowest for years. Where is the market efficiency?
For me, at a moral and emotional level, not just at an intellectual or political one, the degree of food poverty in a country is the single most important indicator of whether its food system is working. There are others of equal policy importance, of course, such as its sustainability its financial viability, its vibrancy of food culture, the safety of its supply, the general health profile of its population, the diversity of its cuisines, and so on. But if a country cannot ensure that all its citizens are well fed, then it cannot claim to be just and it must be challenged if it dares to speak on behalf of civilisation.
In Britain, we like to think that food poverty is something that happens in far offplaces. As people with strong international experience and interests in nutrition, education and social policy, Drs Dowler, Turner and Dobson need no reminding about global food insecurity. They and many others, myself included, were indignant when at the time of the 1992 International Conference on Nutrition and then the 1996 World Food Summit, the British Government treated with disdain the United Nation's request for all Member States to audit their food insecurity. Britain has no food insecurity was the message that went to the wo rid. This was and is misleading. And one of the many reasons this book is to be treasured is that it is a belated but honourable righting of the record. The truth, as this book testifies, is that there has been an heroic upsurge of community projects against and to alleviate food poverty in Britain. But fast as they build people's confidence, create solidarities, the structural problems that created the situation manufacture more victims. No one willingly experiences food poverty.
Poverty Bites, in my view, is the best summary of current understanding and data about food poverty that I know. When I read it, I relaxed.'That is it', I kept saying to myself. They are telling it as it is and as it needs to be told. The indignity, the ill-health, the sheer hard slog of feeding oneself and a family on low incomes. The health costs. The double burden of being surrounded by the same visual and televisual food marketing pressures as everyone else, yet not being able to purchase like them - even when it would be bad for health to do so. This is a surreal new twist to being food poor that only an 'advanced' industrial country like Britain could invent. It is normal to eat a diet that is deleterious for health in Britain. That is why the issue of food poverty has to be linked with other bids for the policy agenda - quality, prices, corporate control. As I write a Policy Commission on the Future of Food and Farming is sitting. It is to report by Christmas 2001. If food poverty, a symbol of the links between social policy and public health, is not a central part of its recommendations, an opportunity will have been lost and pressure must be put on the Government in its response to the Policy Commission to right the wrong.
The food poverty story told in these pages is both new and very old. The myths and bad faith about food poverty are legion. 'There's no food poverty in the UK, just bad management' goes one cry. Nonsense. People on low incomes are remarkable for their efficiency of purchasing and brilliance at juggling impossible demands.'They are just badly educated and cannot cook properly'. Again, not true. My own colleagues' work shows that it is the rich, not the poor, who cook least; they can afford to buy their way out.
While we read and ingest this excellent summary of a dire situation, we need to refine our thoughts. What are the policies that allow this to happen? What could be done to correct them? Which are the social forces that rely on, and defend, the indefensible? Here, as the authors show, the food poverty watchers and pressure groups have been making inroads. The poverty and health agenda has connected at last with the importance of town planning and with how transport policy compounds unequal and inadequate access to shops. Who shouts for the poor when planning supermarkets, transport systems and school curricula? It is easier to blame poor diets on financial incompetence.
In the end, Poverty Bites is a challenge not just to governments but to us all. We will not be able to maintain pressure on government any government unless we have at our fingertips the right facts, figures and arguments. But be warned as you read it. You are entering the dangerous terrain of trying to address what to do about it. It is not good enough just to moan or remonstrate or study food poverty. We have to act. That is why I applaud the Child Poverty Action Group for publishing this book. It is a return to one of the core issues which sparked the CPAG into existence decades ago.
The realisation of food policy failure has emerged gradually, not least due to dogged campaign co-ordination by non government organisations. But now we have no excuses for not knowing. Ministers cannot be allowed to blame the poor for inadequate diets. Quietly, over recent decades food poverty has crept up the policy agenda. Remember that it was the Conservative Government that set up the Food and Low Income Project Team (LIFT) as part of the Nutrition Task. By 1992, in its Health of the Nation White Paper, the Conservatives had recognised that 'variations in health' (that weasel phrase for inequalities) was a real cost drag.They recognised too that this was dangerous policy territory. As members of LIFT, Liz Dowler and I were given terms of reference that excluded any discussion of benefit levels, when everyone knew that was central. Ironically this meant that LIFT could focus on the other issues which were also in serious need of attention issues such as access, availability, range of foods, local action, etc. New terrain was opened up, about the structural not just income characteristics of modern food poverty.
The LIFT reported in 1996 but there was no action from the dying days of the Major Government, and the baton was taken up by the incoming Labour Government's Acheson Inquiry into Inequalities in Health5 and then the Social Exclusion Unit's Policy Action Team 13 on Access to Shops (a real snappy title that one!). Both these reports underlined the structural dimension underlying food poverty. By this we mean issues such as where supermarkets are sited, the warped payments of the Common Agricultural Policy, inadequacy of income levels, and much more.
As this book demonstrates, food poverty raises many complex questions. But above all, it is a challenge to political priorities. We need to campaign not just to raise benefit levels but also to tax the more affluent. We need to shout loudly that more just societies are healthier societies. Whatever our income or circumstances, the problem of modern food poverty is not the problem of the poor alone. Someone who experiences food poverty, feels it individually of course. It is their stomach, their health that suffers. But the rest of us collude with it structurally if we do not challenge it. The stark fact is that the food revolution of the last half century the new foods, new farming systems, new long-distance logistics is presently in a fair bit of trouble. Britain's national food policies ought to have been seen to be in crisis due to their appalling record of food poverty and inequalities-related ill-health. But the straw that broke their back was not poverty but that the Treasury and politicians' tolerance for farm subsidies was broken by the bills for BSE and foot and mouth disease. The Treasury and European Union has had to fork out nearly £8 billion, all to support farming's right to export. It is sad but true that trade and fiscal interests have been more important than social suffering in bringing food policy to the boil.
As we read this book, we need to remember that over the last half century the food economy has been driven by and structured to suit the more affluent. Poverty Bites is a wonderful reminder that the next half century must put the food system on a more sustainable basis and must put the needs of the most vulnerable at the heart of any restructuring. If this does not happen, it will not be a sane or just food policy.
Tim Lang, PhD, FFPHMProfessor of Food Policy and Director of the Centre of FoodPolicy, Thames Valley University.