Food and inequalities: New report released

Every year Tom Scanlon, the Director of Public Health for Brighton & Hove, produces a report. This is his opportunity to present what he sees as the key issues for the city from a public health perspective. This year's report 'Look Inequality' covers the impact of inequalities on health.

Included is a section on food poverty – which itself is a strong message about how important this issue has become for our city. The content is stark. There is a clear correlation between income, diet and health outcomes; and diet-related health inequality is growing. Although diet and associated wellbeing is improving in higher income groups, this is not the case in lower income groups. Poor diet contributes to dental issues, obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer, all of which are seen more frequently in more deprived groups. And all of which cost a great deal of money for our local health services – meaning we simply can't afford to ignore this issue.

Food poverty is defined as the inability to afford, or have access to, the food necessary for a healthy diet. But the report acknowledges that it does not exist in isolation from the other forms of inequality and poverty: low pay, unaffordable housing, falling benefits, and a lack of disposable income or savings. The report details the triple pressure of increasing food, fuel and housing costs and the contrasting fortunes in the price of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' food over the last decades. This is illustrated by the example that between 1980 and 2012, the price of fresh vegetables tripled while the price of an ice cream halved.

The result - people with limited budgets in the city are skipping meals, opting for less healthy options and resorting to emergency provision. People are living with the day in, day out worry about where food will come from. In a prosperous city this is not acceptable and I welcome that this report recognises food is an inequalities issue and recommends that a Food Poverty Action Plan should form part of any comprehensive Inequalities Strategy. Work on a Food Poverty Action Plan (led by the Food Partnership) will start with a roundtable event on 13th July (see Emily O'Brien's recent blog for more detail). This Action Plan will only be successful if it addresses the underlying causes of food poverty and not just the consequences, and I hope that partners are coming to the table ready to commit to working in new ways.

'Look Equality' also sees addressing food poverty as being about more than dealing with immediate hunger, which chimes with what we know – responses to food poverty are about so much more than food banks. This is backed up by the findings of research that the Food Partnership will be releasing later this week: 'Eating Together: exploring the role of lunch clubs and shared meals in Brighton & Hove'. For the first time, this report brings to light the sheer scale of community eating - almost half a million shared meals take place each year at lunch clubs and other community groups in our city. The research highlights the largely unrecognised role that these groups are playing in addressing food poverty, in reducing isolation, in contributing to good nutrition and health, in offering advice and acting as a gateway to other services.

Looking at some of the wider issues covered in the Director of Public Health's report such as mental health, disabilities and healthy ageing it is also worth reflecting that food is frequently mentioned as part of the answer, as a well as the problem. Food solutions include involvement in food growing projects, shared meals or cookery skills sessions.

So yes it is important that food poverty is recognised as an inequalities issue, but food is more than that and should be at the heart of the solutions too!

You can read and download sections of the report here