World Food Day

925 million people are hungry.

Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes.

That’s one child every five seconds.

There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005.

The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty.

World Food Day - Michelle HenryThis year has been one of the wettest on record. In Edinburgh, we had the wettest April, May, June, and July since records began at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the 19th century. Across the UK:

Potato harvests are down by half in some areas. The NFU’s Scottish cereal survey indicated wheat yield was down by 18% from 2011, winter barley yield down 7%, spring barley yield down 18% and winter oilseed rape yield down 26%.

I’ve discussed this before (Scotland’s Food Programme) and also, for World Porridge Day, how stock brokers gambling on food prices rising is itself creating a bubble of high food prices to profit investors and make people hungry.

Mike Small wrote in the Guardian last Friday:

With this the notion of “bounty” or “plentitude” that’s deeply imbedded in our understanding may be under challenge. The sense of entitlement wrapped up in a lovely jumble of pagan and Christian symbolism that used to roll together into a vague Thanksgiving will come under question. The cornucopia of living in a fertile land. Now we’re more likely to expect ceaseless globalised food from the shelves of 24-hour Tescos. Unacknowledged, food just gushes out, endlessly. Doesn’t it?

We may have broken the cycle of appreciation long ago and will simply wake up shocked and angry that we can’t buy lots of very cheap food. That was our birthright, right? Like houses you could make money off or the certainty of banking, cheap petrol so you can drive anywhere, cheap food – the notion of abundance – is the next of our pillars of certainty about to be knocked away.

Well, it already has, for thousands of people. In an informal straw poll a few months ago, many teachers responded to a disbelieving query that yes, they saw children in their classrooms every day who had come to school hungry (the No-Breakfast Club) and the Trussell Trust, the biggest foodbank charity in the UK (172 food banks UK-wide, soon to be 263 food banks), reports that in the past financial year 2011-2012 they fed 128,000 people: in the current financial year, judging by how figures are rising, they expect to have to find food for 200,000. The number of young people who are long-term unemployed – unable to find work for more than two years – has risen by 168% since 2008, according to The Prince’s Trust. The Trussell Trust chairman, Chris Mould, said that while they are aware they weren’t reaching as many old people as they feel they should be (less than 1% of those referred are pensioners), still:

travel and rent increases and the dire state of the youth employment market had left many of the UK’s young adults in a desperate state with little financial resilience.

“When you’ve got people who are on the margin of just making it and there’s another price rise, another change in their outgoings, they can’t negotiate [the change]… something gives, and it is going to be the food.”
In the latest set of figures, 14,500 people, 16% of all those being referred, were aged 16-24, a group that makes up around 11% of the UK population in total.

This is a situation largely created by the current government’s policies of delaying and denying benefits. Chris Mould said that:

other reasons for hunger included debt and delayed wages; circumstances arising out of domestic violence and sickness, but that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who are responsible for the benefits system needed to ask why so many people were being left hungry by bureaucratic failure; increased use of benefit sanctions; and the government’s reform measures, which could require benefit claimants to switch to different types of benefits. “The period in which people are left with no recourse to money and therefore an inability to get food on the table is longer.”

The DWP agreed that “where appropriate” they refer people to the Trussell Trust but cited figures showing 80% of benefit claims are turned around in 16 days and said that “reforms were making the welfare system more effective”:

“We recognise the welfare system we inherited is broken, trapping on benefits the very people it was designed to help. Our reforms will transform the lives of some of the poorest families in society by making work pay and lifting thousands out of poverty.”

What the Tories have made the DWP mean by “make work pay” is to make the safety-net meant to preserve us from destitution so close to destitution that people will be willing to do anything at all for very little pay. Where there are 2.59 million unemployed and four hundred thousand jobs (many of them part-time), this is blaming a quart for being unable to squeeze into a airline-approved 50ml bottle.

As LatentExistence writes on the recent idea of controlling poverty-level spending by benefit cards:

We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

The government hasn’t addressed the reasons for smoking and drinking either, and it’s not just about addiction. Smoking is an appetite suppressant When food is expensive and income is so low parents often buy food for their children while smoking to mitigate their own hunger pangs. Alcohol is a pain killer and a sedative; like it or not for some people despite all of our medical advances alcohol may be the only way that they can have a few pain-free hours or relax enough to go to sleep.

In June, on a rare sunny Saturday, I took photos of Edinburgh Farmers Market and posted them as a blog. That blogpost got a rarely unpleasant comment, which I left up because I looked at it and I thought: I can afford to shop at the Market. It’s not as cheap as shopping at my local Scotmid, but it’s value for money. I can afford to have a box of locally-grown organic vegetables delivered fortnightly. That’s not cheap, but compared to what the same quantity of vegetables would cost me in a supermarket, it’s excellent value for money. I can afford to cook these vegetables into delicious meals, and freeze the leftovers. If I couldn’t – if I were surviving on cheap food bought at Sainsbury’s and donated to the local food bank, how would I feel about the people cheerfully buying this good food? So I left it up.

When we write about solutions to climate-change, to eating well on locally-grown food, none of this answers the overriding problem of so many families in the UK who don’t benefit from the cheap-food culture of the supermarkets because they don’t have the money to buy it and, where families are homeless and given “temporary accommodation”, they may not have anywhere to cook or store good food.

I plan to go to Local Food Solutions 2012 in November. I’m interested in the Fife Diet – the goal of maximising what you eat locally. I appreciate what Mike and Karen Small have written about its achievability on a low budget – indeed, that properly managed buying locally-grown food ensures the weekly food bill, including travel costs to buy food, is lower than doing a weekly shop in Sainsbury’s:

Disappointingly for those who would label it a hair shirt exercise in 100% local fanaticism, a sensible flexibility reigns. Things like coffee, tea, chocolate, spices and lemons, which have no seasonal local equivalent, go into the category of acceptable deviations from the overarching principle, so you will still find smoked paprika, peanut butter and soy sauce in the Smalls’ larder. “If you really like something, then have it!” says Karen. Organic food is regarded as a desirable bonus but not essential: the goal is to support local food production, organic or otherwise. The considered verdict from participants who have been testing the food possibilities on their doorstep for 18 months now is that eating about 80% local food is both enjoyable and achievable. That’s a huge change, when you think that it probably accounts for only a tiny proportion of what most people eat.

But to eat well on a low budget entails having a kitchen to cook it in, having somewhere safe to preserve food, as well as having the expertise to cook the food and the time to do the thinking and cooking required.

A supermarket food programme such as Sainsbury’s offer for food banks (disgracefully, they have already won an award this year and are up for a second award on the BBC Food Programme) does not fix any of the long-term problems of hunger in the UK – rather the reverse, while Sainsbury’s pays its employees low wages and the Tory government Lord Sainsbury is part of (he sits as a Tory in the House of Lords) is cutting support to people in low-waged jobs.

Today is the 33rd World Food Day. Save the Children warns that food prices are reaching a record high. In 2011, this put an additional 400,000 children’s lives at risk. Justin Forsyth, Save the Children’s chief executive, said:

“Even before food prices started to rise, many poor parents were struggling to afford nutritious food for their children.

“When prices rise, families cut back even further – unable to pay the price of nutritious foods which will help children grow up healthy and fulfil their potential. The slow progress globally on malnutrition – still the underlying cause of a third of child deaths – could be at risk if we don’t act to help the poorest families.”

Global food prices are “teetering dangerously close to their highest level in history”, the charity said.

Findings from a recent government survey showed in May 2012 the main food issue that mattered to nearly 2/3rds of those surveyed was food prices – a rise from 60% in November 2011:

Even ethical considerations have dropped down their list of considerations, according to a separate survey by charity IGD ShopperVista which showed that price is crucial in determining product choice, with 41% of shoppers naming it as the most important factor and 90% listing it within their top five influences. Ethical provenance was considered least important – mirrored in the 3.7% slump in sales of organic food and drink last year.

Affordability is now the key factor in determining what food and drink we buy. Food prices have risen 12% in real terms over the last five years, taking us back to 1997 in terms of the cost of food relative to other goods. This week cash-strapped consumers – already stung by extra financial pressures such as rising petrol costs, inflation-busting rail fares and further hikes in their energy bills – were warned to expect further food price rises as a result of the drought in the US and the washed out UK summer that have affected the supply and quality of crops.

And food gambling. The great unmentionable – for the banksters and stock market gamblers, rising food prices is good news. It’s like rising house prices. In fifteen years we’ve gone from an Edinburgh where a single person who saved/strived could buy their first place on a sensible mortgage in their 20s, to an Edinburgh where that’s an impossible, maybe-if-I-win-the-Lottery dream. But if you already own a house (providing the mortgage is affordable) house prices going up is good news. But we need to keep buying food: nobody but the successful gamblers benefits from rising food prices.

George OsborneThis is a problem all over the world and for right here right now. On Tuesday 13th November, the EU’s finance ministers will vote on new rules to prevent the banksters and gamblers pushing up food prices for their own profit. Naturally the Conservative-LibDem coalition government is firmly opposed to regulating this. Oxfam says the text of the current legislation doesn’t go far enough, but the UK might vote against even the current weak regulation.

Write to George Osborne and tell him to stop the betting on food, the very rich quite literally profiting from world hunger.

See also: World Development Movement video at Bright Green Scotland.

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Filed under About Food, Economics, FairTrade, Poverty, Sustainable Politics

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