When I first started to work on developing the journal Food Policy in the 1970s, there were no food banks in Britain. In fact, Britain was at its most equal since the early 1900s. Today food banks are spreading like the plague, and levels of inequality have gone back to those of the early 1900s as Danny Dorling’s work, amongst others, has shown.
Like today, food security was a key buzz word – and with good cause after the famines of the early 1970s. But food security then was thought of as something of a problem for poor countries. It was also seen, as this statement from the 1974 World Food Summit makes clear, as being about the:
“availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”.
Since then, the understanding of food security has broadened considerably. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has produced a review of the State of Food Insecurity in the World annually since 1999. And despite declarations made – Kissinger’s promise in 1974 that no child would go to bed hungry in 10 years and the World Food Summit’s commitment in 1996 to halve the number of people going hungry by 2015, they remain aspirations not realities.
Indeed, the reality in the UK, one of the world’s richest countries, now is that growing numbers of people are malnourished. While many suffer from a malnutrition arising from overconsumption of poor diets others fear or experience going hungry. The generous response of people to come together to alleviate those problems shows clearly that people think it is wrong that some people cannot get enough to eat – or the right mix of food for an active healthy life.
In Scotland, both a local government official and national government official said at the recent Nourish Scotland conference that it was a matter of shame for them that food banks existed in their country*. It is for me too. I do not want to live in either a country or a world where people go hungry, and while I may die off before we get to a well-fed world, it should be within the lifetime of my children to live in such a world. But to change this situation we need to look across our food systems and the different drivers that lead to the current outcomes.
All that’s a rather long introduction to why I agreed to chair this newly established Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which held its first hearing in Parliament on November 19th. You can listen to the evidence given there and the Q&A on the Commission’s website. This independent, non-partisan commission of seven people is aiming to look at the many aspects that link food and poverty from a food system perspective, not just from the one obviously important aspect, income.
We have five evidence sessions scheduled, and the next one is on December 9th, in London, while dates and venues for the rest have still to be fixed. Please contact Cameron Tait if you want to come along. You can also submit evidence through the web site. The hearings cover:
- Money and affordability
- Context and access
- The supply chain and society
These topics are interrelated and require an understanding reaching across the whole food sector and beyond.
We will also be working with a group of people in Manchester directly affected by food poverty throughout the life of the Commission and connecting with their and others’ lived experiences of the links between food and poverty.
* See my interview with Graham Riches in an earlier blog