The hunger games: food poverty and politics in the UK.

Author:Livingstone, Nicola
Position:Behind the News - Report


'The existence of capitalism implies a dynamic of development which attacks us constantly, subjecting our lives more directly to money, creating more and more poverty, more and more inequality, more and more violence.' (Holloway 2005: 20)

Holloway's dynamic of capitalist society's development through poverty, money and inequality finds a contemporary and insidious form in the growth of food poverty and food aid. Hunger is increasingly becoming a mode of existence in UK society today, grounded in a lack of money and changing welfare systems. Unlike the movie from which this paper takes its title, the hunger games of capital are increasingly manifesting themselves through the growth of food aid provision, with a flurry of recently published reports highlighting key issues relating to poverty and food aid in the UK. This 'Behind the News' contribution outlines various aspects of this contemporary struggle to reform the social relations of poverty and hunger. It is a suggestion to consider the fragility of capital through the socialisation of hunger. It begins by outlining the growing significance of food aid providers, specifically food banks, and then considers several competing discourses surrounding the role of the state and food poverty. It presents ideas developed around news relating to two distinctly different and yet interconnected perspectives: the social and historic evolution of food aid providers themselves, and the government response thereto, which amounts to confusion, inaction and apparent denial.

UK capitalism is floundering around the question of food poverty, and charities such as FareShare and the Trussell Trust have provided the means to address food poverty, if only in a limited and short-term capacity. The present government's neoliberal form reflects a state that is actively distancing itself from the welfare state, and slowly destroying those who access it, through the introduction of reforms that exacerbate inequality and poverty. The so-called 'bedroom tax', benefit caps, benefit sanctions and universal credit are some examples of how neoliberalism is attempting to dismantle the existing welfare state. Research suggests that a key driver of the increase in food aid is welfare reform. However, the current government sees no relationship between its welfare reforms and the increase in food aid across the UK, with government spokespeople consistently stating that there is 'no robust evidence' (Downing et al. 2014: 9) to link the two. As the government continues to dismiss connections between hunger and reforms (and potentially as a result of ongoing charitable action), food aid provision is becoming institutionalised in 21st-century Britain as an extension of the welfare state. It is becoming 'normal' to see responses to hunger coming from food aid charities. This piece will reflect on the antagonisms of food aid provision and the contradictions within the state's response. Prior to this, food aid in the UK will be discussed, linking research and news articles on its evolution.

The growing significance of food banks

Charities provide the vanguard response to food poverty today, primarily through food banks, which in the last decade have become prolific providers of emergency food aid across the UK. They are either independently run or affiliated with an organisation, such as the Trussell Trust. Food banks co-exist alongside other food providers such as soup kitchens and drop-in centres, which typically represent a more localised community response. Food banks are an emergency short-term response, providing the equivalent of three days' worth of food per person to those in immediate crisis (even if crises are ongoing). All evidence points to increasing demand for food aid across the UK (Cooper et al. 2014; Trussell Trust 2014; Sosenko et al. 2013; Cooper & Dumpleton 2013), reflected in the continual growth of food banks in recent years. Food parcels are also distributed by charities including the Salvation Army, and in 2013 the Red Cross began redistributing food in the UK for the first time since the Second World War. Growth has been staggering:

* In 2013-14, the number of people accessing food aid increased 54 per cent year-on-year (Cooper et al. 2014).

* This represented distribution of over 20 million meals by key food aid charities (Cooper et al. 2014).

* There are now 423 Trussell Trust food banks operating across the UK, with two on average opening each week (Trussell Trust 2014a).

* In 2010-11, Trussell Trust banks distributed 61,468 food parcels in the UK, compared to 913,138 in 2013-14 (Trussell Trust 2014b), an almost fifteen-fold increase in parcels.

* Over 330,000 of these parcels were issued to feed children (Trussell Trust 2014a).

Today in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world (Cebr 2013), we are seeing the reappearance of crisis-driven food rationing.

Local independent food banks are often informal (they do not require a referral), but in order to receive a food parcel from the Trussell Trust, you must first be referred and obtain a voucher. Typically referrals come from 'frontline professionals' such as social workers or doctors. In this way, the Trussell Trust aims to prevent dependency on food banks, which can only be accessed up three times in a six-month period. Referrals also offer the Trust an opportunity to collect and analyse data regarding the reasons for referrals. We are seeing the commercialisation of basic food through charities, the franchising...

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