The numbers of people living in poverty in the UK are increasing. Forced to make stark choices between heating or eating, many are going hungry or buying cheap food that’s full of empty calories. Hunger and malnutrition don’t just lead to underweight, but also to overweight and obesity, which can cause serious illnesses and even death. With diet-related illnesses – and their associated costs – on the rise in the UK, we urgently need to address the root causes of poverty.
In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited the UK. He found that 14 million people (a fifth of the population), live in poverty. Within this figure, four million are more than 50 percent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute. After years of progress, poverty is rising again, with child poverty predicted to rise seven percent between 2015 and 2022.
It’s no surprise, then, that nearly four million children don’t have access to healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Many families in the UK are ‘food insecure,’ facing stark choices between buying food, paying the rent or heating their home. A lack of shops selling fresh food, fast food outlets near schools and vegetables that cost three times more than ultra-processed alternatives, mean that cheap food laden with salt, sugar and saturated fats is often their only option.
Eating low quality food leads to malnutrition just as surely as not eating enough food. That’s why obesity is as much a sign of poverty as being underweight. Malnutrition, hunger and overweight doesn’t just affect people’s physical health, but also their life-chances, self-confidence and mental well-being.
Why are so many children and adults in the UK – the world’s fifth largest economy – suffering from such high levels of food insecurity? It’s not because there isn’t enough food. The world produces more than enough to go around. Essentially, people are suffering from the effects of underweight, obesity and malnutrition because they can’t afford healthy, nutritious food.
Hunger and unhealthy diets are symptoms of poverty. The root causes are the structural inequalities in household incomes and access to food. The government must urgently address these inequalities. All households must have enough money to thrive, not just survive, through a living wage or an adequate welfare safety net, and healthy food should be more readily available and less expensive than unhealthy food.
A group of over 30 organisations, including national charities, businesses and academics, are calling on the UK administrations to commit to eliminating ‘Holiday Hunger’, where children from poorer families struggle to eat a nutritious diet during school holidays
The UK’s ‘age of austerity’ has put the affordability of food firmly on the political agenda. Over four million people in the UK are currently experiencing food poverty, and many more cash-strapped householders are juggling tight budgets.
What is the role – if any – for food businesses in tackling food poverty?