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Food Poverty: We Must Get Beyond Inadequate Plasters on This Gaping Wound

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Last night many senior representatives of NGOs and parliamentarians gathered in the House to debate food poverty, under the umbrella of Just Fair. Useful and important things were said. But the really powerful word came from several speakers, all women, who spoke about the reality of living in food poverty.

Jack, from the "A Girl Called Jack" blog, spoke of the pain of giving her two-year-old a single Weetabix mashed with water for breakfast, then her feelings when he asked for bread and jam, which she didn't have. Angela Babb, a mother of seven, including a son with autism, from Hackney, spoke about careful tours of the supermarket, using her phone's calculator to work out what she couldn't afford and had to put back on the shelf. And Lorna Sculley, a dinner lady from Hackney, spoke about her desire to be a working mum, but the way the welfare system seemed determined to make this impossible.

Keira from Disabled People Against the Cuts, also spoke of how disability interacted with food poverty. "Food deserts become more intense if you can't get out of the house. Microwave food isn't healthy, but that's all the system says we are entitled to. And if you can't afford food you become sick, so even if your income later rises, you will always be disabled."

One of the chief immediate asks from the evening was for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into food poverty by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, as proposed by Oxfam in its "Walking the Breadline report". Who could disagree, when Adrian Curtiss, Trussell Trust Foodbank director, told us that currently a new foodbank is opening every three days in the UK?

My notes from the evening are a mass of crossing out - with only five minutes per speaker there was so much I wanted to say but didn't have time for.

I began by an immediate measure that could have a big positive impact -"Children's Society campaign", backed by Green MP Caroline Lucas and others, to ensure that all families receiving universal credit get free school meals. In correspondence with David Laws, Minister for Work and Pensions, Caroline asked him to explain the huge disparity between the Society's carefully worked out estimate of the cost, £500m, and the government's £1bn figure - but no substantive answer was received.

Both are big numbers of course - but put against the cost and damage of hungry children, parents not eating so their children can, the consequent impacts on health, on learning, on behaviour, excellent value for money. (Later a speaker from Sustain spoke of their suggestion of a"soft drink tax" to fund free school meals - not at all a bad idea.)

I added that Green Party policy went further - calling for free school meals for all pupils, which would not only ensure every child got at least one decent meal a day, no matter what their circumstances, but also slash administrative costs and provide economies of scale in supply.
But I said that ultimately measures to simply address the food part of food poverty were not adequate - what needed to be addressed was the poverty.