In 2013, a group of doctors declared in the British Medical Journal that food hunger is a ‘public health emergency’. Often when thinking about food scarcity, we tend to think about developing countries and famine. We forget that food hunger is present on our doorstep. We come face to face with it every day without even realising; perhaps whilst walking down Cornmarket at night or in the supermarket aisles where a mother may be visibly conflicted as she decides how to make her last £2 feed four people that evening. It is an issue that should not exist anywhere, but especially not in one of the world’s largest economies, where supermarkets are packed to the brim, full of food they will throw out at the close of business.
As a result of the 2008 Financial crisis and the subsequent austerity measures introduced by David Cameron and the coalition government, the use of food banks has grown drastically.
Furthermore, a 2012 study undertaken by Netmums found that 20% of mothers missed out on meals so they could feed their children instead. More and more children are showing up to school malnourished and underweight and whilst many see school holidays as a much needed break, for many families it is a very stressful time because they cannot afford to feed their children.
The first step to alleviating this issue is acknowledging that it exists. The Conservative government has to realise the severity of this is- sue and how deeply it runs through the country. In 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg notably commented that “inevitably, the state can’t do everything, so I think that there is good within food banks”.
There aren’t. There is one simple reason: Conservative government policy has caused so much strain on low-income people that they have resorted on charity to fulfil their own and their families most basic needs. The government needs to stop brushing it under the carpet and its reliance on food banks and charities to address its shortcomings and inadequacies.
Once the government recognises the reality of the issue, they need to reform the current benefits and universal credits system.
In particular, they must work harder to ensure that there are no delays or gaps in income. Even a lag of one day can be too much. It is important to note that some people even lack access to food banks or are unaware or embarrassed to use them.
We need to have a system which understands the context of the issue that it is attempting to be solved. In fact, we already have a welfare system that has the primary aim of reducing poverty, a system that those who are on the boundary of survival rely heavily on.
Therefore, it would make sense and it would be reasonable to expect that this system also has a solution built in which addresses the issues that will inevitably arise if payments are delayed. This can only happen if there the government initiates a cultural shift and changes the approach currently employed and exhibited by local councils.
The first would be to limit the use of benefit sanctioning in only a few exceptional cases and have a greater understanding and respect for the people who are appealing for help.
The government needs to rethink its harsh austerity measures that are disproportionately affecting low-income people. It needs to stop making the most vulnerable in our society pick between keeping warm or eating. It needs to stop making parents choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. And it needs to recognise that this issue exists and it needs to stop tolerating it as just a by-product of economic security. If the only way this government thinks it can achieve economic security is by starving its poorest, then it confirms what we always knew about the Conservative party.
Until then, people in Oxford and across the nation will continue to suffer from nutritional poverty without any hope of a solution in the foreseeable future.