The 2015 general election and its implications for food insecurity in the UK.

On Friday, 8 May 2015 I awoke to discover that not only were we not looking forward to a new coalition government in the UK, but that the overall collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party has given the Conservative government a mandate in UK politics. While I, at an individual level, am likely to see some benefits from the strong neoliberalism that underpins this government’s ideology, I am concerned by the implications of this for the country more generally and particularly the nation’s poor. Indeed, I see a further deepening of the division between those who have and those who have not. As I will elaborate, this will mean the continued exponential growth in the numbers of people requiring emergency food assistance and increased numbers of children and elderly with inadequate food supply, which will also translate into higher rates of obesity, diet rated illness and malnutrition. These trends as they are situated within the current climate of neoliberal austerity will also mean that we, if we are to continue as a nation with social values (as opposed to only economic values) must find ways of filling the gap, not just for families but also for our communities.

Today in the United Kingdom there are nearly five million people[1] who are living as food insecure[2]. Professor Wendy Wills, as quoted in the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty report (2015), defines this as those who are unable to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food made available in socially acceptable ways or who have the (regular) uncertainty that they will be able to do so. At the same time, according to a University of Manchester study, there are over 1million elderly who are malnourished, which is about 1/3 of the total number (about 3million) identified as malnourished in the UK today. Indeed the National Association for Care and Catering finds that approximately one in ten of the elderly living in the UK are at risk of malnourishment[3]. There are no clear figures on the number of children living in food insecure households, but we do know that approximately 1.6 million children are living in severe poverty (Save the Children, 2012)[4] and reports indicate that for school aged children living in these households, the only hot meal they will get is the one they receive through school lunch programmes, meaning that these families struggle more during school holidays. In 2014 there were more than 20 million meals provided to people who were unable to provide them for themselves[5]. What we have seen since 2010 is an exponential growth in the number of households relying on emergency food aid as evidenced by reports from the Trussell Trust which show that in 2009/10 nearly 50,000 households received 3 days of emergency food aid but by 2014/15 the number had increased to over 1 million. In 2013 Oxfam UK estimated that “36% of the UK population was just one heating bill or broken washing machine away from hardship”.

Looking at these figures one might think the United Kingdom is not a wealthy nation. But this is not the case. Credit Suisse in their rankings of nations by wealth put the UK at number 5 in the list behind the US, Japan, China, and France. Based on 2010 UK Census figures, per capita wealth in the UK is about $182,825 (US), but this wealth is not distributed evenly across the population. While the wealthiest fifth of the population controls nearly 41% of the income, the poorest fifth have just 8%[6]. Moreover, while rates of employment have increased over the last few years, pay growth has not kept up[7].

The new government has little in its manifesto to indicate relief, as there are promises to cut public spending by a further £55bn by 2019 (on top of the £35bn cut during the coalition government)[8]. Indeed, since last week we have already seen cuts in work programmes that support those with disabilities. In the fireing line are Sure Start programmes, programmes for refugees and migrants, and reduced funding for local authorities, meaning not only cuts to programmes that support the most vulnerable but also cuts to other services such as those that provide road repairs, parks, libraries and the like. On top of the loss of services and support programmes, cuts also translate into bodies out of employment. Thus, this new round of austerity will reach higher up the ladder for those living in the UK as a large proportion of the costs associated with these services is the wages for those who deliver them. The Office for Budget Responsibility indicates that by 2020 there will be a further loss of 1 million government jobs (compared to the loss of 400,000 government jobs over the course of the last parliament)[9]. One can only conclude, given that the proposed cuts are even more swingeing than those imposed by the previous government, and given that the cuts already implemented are those which are what some refer to as the “low hanging fruit”, we can expect income inequality to widen in the UK, a state that already has one of the highest geni coefficients in Europe (only lower than Turkey and Portugal in 2010[10]).

For those living in poverty in the UK today the amount of disposable income for the poorest fifth of households is approximately £156 per week. This is income after taxes and transfer payments. One must not confuse disposable income with discretionary income, as disposable income is spending on how people clothe themselves; how they get to work; pay for childcare; keep themselves and their families warm; wash their clothes; communicate with others; pay for housing; celebrate birthdays and other holidays; pay for school trips, uniforms, and supplies; socialise; and cook (including not just the food but also the fuel to run the cooker, microwave, and refrigerator). For many households (not just the poorest), the most flexible item in their budget is food expenditure[11]. Families in this position are not concerned with the environmental or social implications associated with the food that they buy, but instead are concentrating on “getting fed.” As such, and because it is now less expensive to feed ones family on processed food (with higher salt, sugar, and fat content) than fresh food[12] and as the cost of food is predicted to continue to rise, we can expect to see not just increases in the numbers of people going hungry, relying on emergency food aid but also increases in the rates of dietary related illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition. These health implications will, in turn, continue to place greater pressure on an already struggling National Health System.

The UK government has an obligation to ensure that the Right to Food as specified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a covenant for which it is a signatory, is upheld. This right to food protects the right of all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. Moreover, the UK is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifies a duty to provide ‘material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition.’ At present the rolling back of social services, the decline in real wages, increases in food costs coupled with an emphasis within the Conservative manifesto to develop food production in this country as an export (as opposed and subsidising it in order to feed the nation), suggests that this obligation is not one that is being taken seriously.

If we cannot look to our national government to uphold these rights and obligations, it seems that there is no recourse but to fill the gap from within, and in fact this is what the conservatives are banking on. In their manifesto, the only mention of food justice is expressed via the following phrase: We have always believed that churches, faith groups and other voluntary groups play an important and longstanding role in this country’s social fabric, running foodbanks, helping the homeless, and tackling debt and addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling. In the short term it is evident that the public will need to rely on each other to support the most vulnerable, which includes the elderly and children.

Food banks and charity are not a long term solution, nor are they an adequate solution. We know that food banks are an insecure form of support as they rely on gifts which can be withdrawn at any time. Their coverage is spatially uneven as they are more likely to be located in cities leaving the rural poor in a more precarious position.That donated food tends to be non-perishable food, as opposed to fresh food free of E numbers, fat, salt, and sugar. And food banks do not address more structural issues that give rise to food insecurity in the first instance, though the Trussel Trust does offer some ancillary support but this focuses on individuals not on the problems of the wider context. As a country we need a better understanding of the resources available to local authorities who bear the burden of addressing the inequalities associated with poor food environments and who must deliver services to the poor.

We also need an active citizenry that demands that the government meet its UN obligations to ensure the right to food and the rights of the child. This will not happen within existing government departments as the focus of these rights is not embedded within any one single agency. We have Food Standards, buts it remit does not address food access. DEFRA’s focus is on food production and agriculture, and a read through the department’s aims reflects the neoliberal values of the government. The Department of Health’s remit focuses on nutrition outcomes rather than addressing the root causes of obesity that reside within the way that the food system in this country is structured and the Department for Work and Pensions similarly only considers those elements that are employment focused, rather than a more holistic approach to designing a fair and equitable food system for the UK.   We currently have subsidies for winter fuel, transportation, and housing, but there is nothing that ensures food affordability. What is called for is a governmental body that is cross cutting and which ensures that policies enacted through these departments deliver access to sufficient, healthy (including food that meets the dietary needs of individuals who may have allergies or intollerances), affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all of us, not just the wealthy.


Versions of this post have been published in The Conversation and The Independent and it was updated and republished in a newsletter for Greater Manchester Poverty Action (17/5/17)

[1] The city where I live, Sheffield, has a population of just over 500,000 or comparatively, the city of London has a population of about 13.5 million, or in US terms the Boston metropolitan area (including Boston, Worcester, and Lawrence) is about 5.5 million.

[2] Based on the number of people who earn less than a living wage (Resolution Foundation 2014.

[3] National Association for Care and Catering.

[4] Save the Children 2012 and also

[5] Joint report by Cooper, Percell and Jackson for Oxfam, Trussel Trust and Church Action for Poverty 2015.

[6] The Equality Trust, 2015.

[7] Resolution Foundation, 2015 press release.

[8] Gentelman, Amelia 2015. The Guaridan. See also this working paper by John Hills

[9] See Paragraph 1.22 in the 2014 Office for Budget Responsibility: Economic and Fiscal Outlook Report.

[10] Basted on tables presented by, which use World Bank data.

[11] The Fabian Society. 2015. A recipe for inequality.

[12] See Rao et al 2013.