National Action Week 2019 is at a peak time in a year when so many people’s health is at risk. Hunger and malnutrition can make health problems worse and prevent people from taking steps to make good health a priority.
Reports show that food poverty is increasing among UK families. Figures show families with children are becoming £550 a year worse off as a result of rising food bills. This makes an increased focus on hunger and poverty even more urgent.
The rapid growth of food banks shows the extent of the problem in our society. Last year we collected three million bags of food and £26m worth of food. Half of this went to people in need. Last year there were 10m visits to food banks, 23,000 food parcels given out and more than one million cases referred to addiction services for crisis and recovery support. Hunger and poverty are an issue that are growing bigger and are now affecting the majority of the population.
We’ve used food banks in the past but we don’t want to do that again. We want people to get back to the shops and get enough food to eat. This is how we can do our bit as supermarkets.
Worryingly, some people who are claiming Universal Credit on benefits don’t believe it will improve their circumstances. One in three people who believe it will mean benefits will increase believe that the increases will not be enough to cover the increase in costs. In other words, there is a real threat that there is a risk of those on low incomes seeing a reduction in their income from Universal Credit as a result of rising bills.
There is a shared responsibility to fund increasing payments to families who are struggling to feed themselves and their children.
As part of the ambition for the new type of Universal Credit, there will be additional support for those who need to reduce their food bill if needed. This has to be urgent because there is a real risk that the majority of people on low incomes will see a reduction in their income as a result of rising bills. This can have a serious effect on their health.
The truth is that universal credit is only one part of the answer and the problems facing people who are struggling to feed themselves and their children are much bigger than payment levels.
If we do not start dealing with the roots of poverty and hunger at an early stage, there is a real risk that many people will soon find themselves without adequate food, medicines or drinking water. As consumer society, we have a moral duty to do more.
Mental health and obesity are not the only serious problems around food. Rampant misuse of pesticides and chemicals has contaminated many foods and contributed to the alarming global rise in child malnutrition. Food banks are not the answer. Changing a lifestyle that is based on low-value, often unhealthy, foods, will get a company in more direct conflict with its customers. Maintaining food security is a responsibility everyone needs to share.
We need to take a long, hard look at food production and distribution. While it is widely recognised that our food system is unsustainable and in urgent need of change, we need to ensure that we move in the right direction. This is about getting to a point where we are feeding the whole world, rather than just a few.
Ultimately, it is all about how we eat, but there is no quick solution.
Sally Jansen is chief executive of ActionAid.
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