We can’t end hunger without knowing its scale

Garry Lemon, Head of External Affairs, on why the Government needs to measure household food insecurity

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Until you understand the true magnitude of a problem, you cannot effectively solve it. That’s why this week, as part of End Hunger UK, a coalition of organisations trying to eliminate hunger, we released figures on the scale of hidden hunger in this country. The findings are shocking. Over 1 in 10 adults are skipping meals because of lack of money. When you look at parents with children aged 18 and under, that rises to 1 in 4.

To anyone who has spent any time in a foodbank, however, these findings will not be a surprise. What is happening up and down the country is mirrored in our network of over 400 foodbanks.

Last year, with the University of Oxford, we undertook the most wide-ranging survey into British foodbank use ever. It found that parents with dependent children, people not in work, and people with disabilities and long-term health conditions were the most likely groups in society to need a foodbank.

And not only that – people that came to foodbanks once or twice had been going hungry multiple times in the past year. Half were unable to afford heating, lighting, toiletries or suitable clothing – hardly surprising when we found that the average household income for the month before people were referred was just £315.

In just our foodbanks, the scale is significant. 586,907 Trussell Trust three day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in first half of this year, a 13% increase on the same period last year. 208,956 went to children.

But this week’s survey shows just how widespread the issue of hunger is outside of our foodbanks. That a representative sample of the British public can find so many people going hungry with no public record of the fact, shows just how far away we as a nation are with truly facing up to this issue, let along beginning to tackle it.

We have always said our foodbank figures are only the tip of the iceberg. We hear stories of the mums who waited months before asking for help, skipping meals, feeding their kids and going hungry. We hear of the workers too ashamed to go to their local foodbank for help, relying on their friends and families for a hot meal here and there. And we know of the hundreds of non-Trussell Trust foodbanks and food aid providers, who we can’t account for but work tirelessly in their communities making sure people are fed.

So this new survey is a one-off, and limited, and research undertaken in foodbanks can only capture those people who have been referred to us for help. The UN estimates more than 8 million people have insufficient food in the UK. There have been a few government snapshots of food insecurity, but nothing that allows us to gauge long-term trends. We simply do not know enough about this issue to formulate the appropriate response, to stop potentially millions of men, women and children from going hungry.

EHUK infographic 2

So we are calling for government to take the bold and vital step of regularly measuring ‘household food insecurity’, or hidden hunger, to capture the true scale of the problem, and track it as it grows or recedes. Such a measure would stop the distracting back-on-forth about foodbank figures and other partial statistics on hunger. It would allow policymakers to draw up a response that fits the problem.

And this is urgently needed. As Universal Credit rolls in to more and more areas, as the benefit freeze continues, as food prices go up and wages stay at the same levels as a decade ago, it’s imperative that we know what the impact is on the population – because one thing is for sure, this is a problem on such a huge scale that it is beyond our ability to tackle alone. Only with the support of government and some quite radical policy change are we going to be able to change direction and ensure that everyone in the UK has enough money to put food on the table.