Could Brighton & Hove become a zero hunger city?

Two weeks ago I attended a fascinating event, 'Feeding Manchester', and this week saw the publication of 'Feeding Britain', the highly publicised and already controversial report from the All Parliamentary Inquiry on hunger in Britain.

What came across from both was that as a society we are at a crossroads. We need to collectively decide whether or not we want to move to a system like that in the USA, where 1 in 7 Americans rely on food banks, and whether or not we accept "the terrifying idea that hunger is here to stay".

Feeding Britain has a brave vision of a 'Zero Hunger Britain' where "everybody in this country has the resources, abilities and facilities to purchase, prepare and cook fresh, healthy and affordable food, no matter where they live." The report was clear that the main cause of the increase in food poverty is an increasing proportion of people – especially low income working people, or the 'working poor' – who have seen their incomes rise much more slowly than the really striking increase in prices for housing, fuel and food, to the point that families have lost ability to have an 'income margin' or 'buffer' in hand. The report also makes clear that this effect has been much greater in the UK than other countries.

Feeding Britain has 77clear and often radical recommendations: tackling energy companies who unfairly charge the highest rates to those with the least money; preventing abuse by payday lenders leading to debt; and ensuring that adults and children can learn cooking skills. Also that a new government office should take responsibility for 'living standards' – a responsibility currently fragmented across 8 different government departments.

The most profound recommendations are on low pay. The 'minimum' wage should rise to a 'living' wage - otherwise taxpayers are effectively subsiding large corporations who don't pay enough for their staff to live on, with the shortfall topped up by tax credits and welfare benefits from the public purse.

Some were disappointed that Feeding Britain stopped short of demanding increases in the welfare benefit rates. Instead there is a recommendation for a complete reform of the welfare benefits system, which it portrayed as a dismally failing mix of bureaucracy, unacceptable delays and a degrading and punitive attitude to claimants that fails to provide a basic minimum level of dignity for the people it is supposed to support. These stories mirrored much of what we have been hearing locally, and for me, these measures – including a commitment to assessing benefit claims in 5 working days - couldn't come too soon.

Controversy has been caused by Feeding Britain's acknowledgement of the increasingly established role of food banks – a movement which it describes as 'equivalent to a social Dunkirk', not an idle comparison I suspect, given that Dunkirk was not a miraculous collective achievement - but one brought about in response to 'colossal military disaster'.

In Brighton & Hove, we have seen the number of food banks rise from 2 to at least 12 in just a couple of years and all our local food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. Feeding Britain recommends doubling the 'surplus' food from supermarkets and other outlets which gets donated to food banks. This recommendation was welcomed by the city's largest food bank Basics Bank, as well as by Fareshare, who already distribute surplus food to many of the city's community food projects including the city's food banks.

However many feel that the discussion around food banks is a distraction or worse, with food poverty expert Elizabeth Dowler commenting:

"The proposals essentially use one of society's food problems (a food system which relies on surplus production – aka 'waste') to address another (people cannot afford to buy enough food because of inadequate or uncertain pay and/or social security benefits). We must not lose sight of justice: 'food waste' cannot and must not be seen as the solution to 'food poverty'".

We were one of many organisations throughout the country who submitted evidence to the national inquiry, sharing our experience of food poverty locally. We were asked by one of the city's food banks to make the point about donated food – in particular the shocking fact that companies receive tax breaks for sending edible food to be composted, but not for donating it to community projects. Looking at our city, we also acknowledge that like it or not, food banks have become part of our landscape, and for many people are providing desperately needed help. We look forward to the time when food banks are no longer needed but in the meantime we would like them to operate as effectively as possible, alongside better use of 'surplus' food, which is so often sent to landfill.

However, our hope is that that the 4 recommendations made on food surplus don't distract decision makers from the 73 far deeper and more radical recommendations on tackling the reasons why people are 'food poor' in the first place. We hope that we can keep this balance in mind at a local level when we work with the City Council and other partners to refresh the city's food strategy in 2015, by agreeing a new action plan on food poverty for our city.

Full report: Feeding Britain: a strategy for zero hunger.

Download our Report on identifying food poverty in Brighton & Hove (pdf, 793Kb). Or visit our food poverty advice page for more information.