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Food poverty is a British problem

United Kingdom

© FareShare

There are 13 million people living below the poverty line in Britain. In Manchester, one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, 38 per cent of children live in poverty. And the situation is only getting worse, as the last few years have seen extreme changes to welfare support, wage increases below the rate of inflation, and food prices steadily rising.

Last year alone, almost a million emergency food parcels were given out across the country by foodbank charity The Trussell Trust –up from 347,000 the year before.

Despite these shocking statistics, and how endemic the issue clearly is, many people still  believe all kinds of myths about  food poverty. For example: that it only affects  people in poorer  countries or that foodbanks in countries like Britain are frequented by benefits cheats.

Such ill-informed stereotypes only serve to exacerbate the problem, fuelling a lack of compassion. .

In reality, food poverty can affect anyone. In Britain, there are professionals who are not paid a living wage and who can’t cope with soaring food and energy prices. It affects working families, forced to take out payday loans, and who end up trapped in a cycle of high-interest borrowing. Lone parents, pensioners and those with disabilities, are also likely to be affected..

There are less obvious reasons why people might turn to foodbanks: domestic violence, sickness, welfare reforms, delays in wages and benefits or lack of free school meals during holidays.

Some argue that food charities make the issue worse because people become reliant on their help – essentially, that more people are using foodbanks because there are more foodbanks.

Speaking at the launch of a new campaign in Manchester, Tackling Food Poverty Together, TV presenter Terry Christian likened this argument to believing that ‘the only reason people are getting cancer is because there are oncology wards.’

Another charge levelled at foodbanks is that they are turning food from being a human right to a charitable hand-out.

But I believe that the potential social value of foodbanks and food charities is being underestimated.

Take FareShare, a national charity which rescues thousands of tons of surplus edible food and redistributes it to charities, including foodbanks, breakfast clubs, and women’s refuges.

At the vast FareShare depot in Greater Manchester, large quantities of  fruit, vegetables,  cereals, crisps, pasta, are waiting to be sorted and delivered by a group of volunteers.

Development manager Miranda Kaunang says that many of the volunteers are unemployed, and have come forward to support communities like their own. ‘People who volunteer may be currently out of work, or may feel excluded from their community,’she said. ‘We engage and empower our volunteers by offering training for job interviews. There’s a lot of team spirit here.’

FareShare improves the lives, employability and self-worth of its volunteers. Since 2012, there have been 70 people at the Greater Manchester depot who have progressed through a structured volunteering programme. Eight of those went on to higher-level training and 35 people secured paid employment.

FoodCycle is another national charity, which takes surplus food and cooks up a nutritional three-course meal every week, at centres across the country. Diners aren’t beggars: they’re a community that gathers to share a meal and some conversation, and sometimes listen to live music. FoodCycle also provides information and resources to help people out of food poverty.

There’s a important environmental factor: in Britain, 400,000 tonnes of surplus edible food is thrown away each year. Charities like these are redistributing food to people in need, while also cutting food waste.

Let’s be clear: foodbanks should not be a permanent fixture in society. In one of the world’s wealthiest countries, it’s shameful that they are even necessary.

We need serious political, social and economic change to ensure no one goes hungry. But until that happens, let’s support foodbank charities, and not underestimate the significant and varied contributions they make to society.

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