Hunger has not vanished from our affluent, even overweight, society – as Archbishop Welby has pointed out

Food poverty in the West is not a simple issue

With Christmas fast approaching, our imaginative, resourceful food retailers are hard at it. Turn on the TV, step out the front door, and it is almost impossible to avoid the blitz of food-related images, words and sounds urging us not to miss out on this year’s array of festive delicacies. The assumption is that, in Britain, the choice is not what to eat, but what to resist. However, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, reminds us, that assumption can be very misleading. Ahead of today’s release of a parliamentary report on food banks, the head of the Church of England has placed his authority behind a plea for the Government to get directly involved in the working of food banks. The Archbishop says that the quiet desperation he has seen among some families at food banks in Britain has shocked him more than the overt starvation he has witnessed in Africa, precisely because it is unexpected.

It is to be hoped that the Archbishop’s intervention kindles an informed debate rather a political slanging match because food poverty in the West is not a simple issue. Hunger exists in our society but is relative and disguised. In relative terms, we have never spent less of our income on food. A Royal Commission on Labour in 1893 showed that rural Britons then spent more than 72 per cent of their total budgets on food. In industrial areas, the figure was over 60 per cent. In both, most of this went on bread. When people prayed: “Give us our daily bread,” they meant it literally, not figuratively. That is not the case now, when Britons spend about 15 per cent of their budgets on food. In other words, food poverty exists because getting fed is no longer the primary life goal.

Food poverty is also more disguised than it used to be because people who eat poorly in the West are now rarely thin. On the contrary, they are often overweight because one of the  peculiar anomalies of modern food production is that fatty, starchy, sugary foods – the very foods once considered luxurious – are now relatively cheap and often far cheaper than the healthy vegetables, fruits and nuts that once were considered “poor people’s” food. For the first time in human history, thinness is becoming a privilege.

What to do about these new forms of food poverty, which sometimes come concealed beneath rolls of fat? One good suggestion in the report, backed by the Archbishop, is more pressure on supermarkets and food companies to pass on more edible food to food banks and charities instead of dumping and incinerating it. Supermarkets are doing more than they did on this front but it is still not enough. Last year, Tesco revealed that 30,000 tons of its food went to waste in the first six months of the year. As Tesco holds just over a quarter of the market share in the UK, about 28 per cent, we need to multiply that figure by almost four and then double it to get a rough idea of the amount of food that vanishes into landfills or incinerators over the course of a whole year. Much of it may be useless or even dangerous. There is no point giving food banks out-of-date chicken fillets. But tens of millions of tons of nutritious food is clearly still being chucked away – often not mindlessly but because of legal concerns about liability on the part of donors.

Whether the state should get more directly involved in food banks, one of the issues arising from the report, is a moot point. There is an argument to be made against involving civil servants in a field that seems to be working well under volunteers. But the case for the Government doing more to help food banks grow is unanswerable.

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