Sheffield Council’s Chief Medical Expert Blasts ConDems on Food Poverty

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Today the Director of Public Health in Sheffield, Dr Jeremy Wight, has signed a letter alongside other Members of the Faculty of Public Health concerning food poverty and food banks. The letter is published below.

The real question now is whether the government will listen to this latest group of experts, or continue with their reckless, heartless and useless policies?

To: Rt Hon David Cameron, MP, Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA

Thursday 24 April

Dear Prime Minister,

There is a worrying gap in health circumstances and outcomes between rich and poor people in the UK.[1] [2] [3]. Complex though the reasons for this inequality are, the reality is that hard-working families in the UK are living in poverty and do not have enough income for a decent diet. This not a reality that any of us should accept here in the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy and the third largest in Europe. We urge you to act on the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty’s Parliamentary Inquiry when it is published.

We wish to draw attention to three specific issues. Firstly, food poverty is increasing. It is not just that more people are using food banks[4]. They are a symptom of a more extensive pressure for emergency food aid. This was summarised for your Government in a report to Defra released this year.[5]

Food bank numbers are an inadequate indicator of need, since many households only ask for emergency food help as a last resort. More and more households find themselves unable to afford a decent diet and now include those in work. Reliance on hand-outs should not be part of any modern, society-wide and evidence-based approach to public health policy.

Secondly, there is the underlying issue of food costs and prices. The Office for National Statistics and Defra have shown that the rising costs of food over the last six years are proving increasingly hard for lower income households to manage. The food industry is well aware of these problems; nevertheless, food is likely to continue to cost more in the future.

Over the last five years, food has been one of the three top factors in price inflation,[6] sufficient to worry even higher income consumers.[7] In a time of high fuel prices, this has translated into families cutting back on fresh fruit and vegetables and buying cheap, sweet, fatty, salty or processed foods that require little cooking. A huge amount of on the ground experience and Trussell Trust data suggests that the welfare system is increasingly failing to provide a robust last line of defence against hunger. A vicious circle is set in train, with poorer people having worse diets and contributing to the worrying rise in obesity, diabetes and other dietary-related diseases. [8]

The third issue is the problem of stagnant incomes and wages among the low paid. In real terms, according to Office for National Statistics, incomes have fallen in the first significant manner since the 1960s.[9] ONS calculates that UK workers have suffered a 7.6% fall in real wages over the past six years.[10] Increasing numbers of people on low wages are not earning enough money to meet their most basic nutritional needs.

Our concern is that this puts an overwhelming strain on household food budgets. An affordable nutritious diet is a prerequisite of health. We view the rise of food poverty as indicating the reversal of what was a long process of improvement in food availability and affordability since World War Two. The full situation is complex. Nonetheless, public debate about food poverty is sometimes too quick to ‘blame the poor’ without understanding the pressures poorer families are under.

As public health organisations, our role is to improve, not go backwards. The CMO has recently raised concerns about obesity becoming normal. [11] Our organisations and fellow health professions are committed to assisting the public and the food industry to take the healthier route. Failure to do so will come with immense costs to individuals, families, communities, employers, the NHS and government. Food poverty has never been acceptable in a modern UK. We urge you to act on the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty’s Inquiry [12, 13] to make clear that this injustice is not acceptable now.

The UK Faculty of Public Health urges you to instigate an independent working group to monitor UK nutrition and hunger status. We are willing and ready to offer our professional expertise to support this group, and national efforts to alleviate food poverty and improve the nation’s health.

Yours sincerely,

References:

1 DEFRA. In: Food Statistics Pocketbook. London: DEFRA, 2013: 18.
2 Wales P, Taylor C. Economic review, April 2014. London: Office for National Statistics, 2014.
3 Taylor-Robinson D, Rougeaux E, Harrison D, Whitehead M, Barr B, PearceA. The rise of food poverty in the UK. BMJ 2013; 347: f7157. PubMed
4 Lambie-Mumford H, Crossley D, Jensen E, Verbeke M, Dowler E.Household food security in the UK: a review of food aid. London: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2014.
5 Office for National Statistics. An examination of falling real wages, 2010—2013. London: Office for National Statistics, 2014.

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