Last week, the London Food Strategy was launched at City Hall. It was easy to miss this amid the furore of Brexit, but its pages contain a number of policies that are new or controversial. This spilled out during Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) on Thursday, with Conservative London Assembly Members still insisting on trashing the idea of banning junk food advertising on the Underground. With obesity in London’s children on the rise, I would argue that any measure experts think could help should be tried. At the very least, banning junk food ads will do no harm.
Since being elected to the Assembly in 2012, I have campaigned on the issue of hunger – particularly of child hunger – first with Boris Johnson and now with Sadiq Khan. Even one child in our city going hungry is a scandal, but the half a million at risk of it over the school holidays is simply shameful.
Twenty-eight percent of families in London live in poverty, more than in any other region of the UK. Many of these families have at least one adult in work, but simply don’t earn enough to put decent food on the table. In the face of persistent food price inflation, it should come as little surprise that food poverty is on the rise too. UNICEF estimates that one in 10 British children live in severely food-insecure households. This is set to get worse and Bank of England governor Mark Carney has warned that food prices could rise by at least 10 per cent if there is a “no deal” Brexit.
There has been no greater symbol of the rise in food poverty than the proliferation and normalisation of food banks. There were comparatively few of them ten years ago. Yet in a sox month period during last year more than 658,000 emergency food packages were supplied by the Trussell Trust in the UK, of which 72,239 were in London. These figures reveal a picture of a voluntary welfare system desperately trying to fill the ever-expanding gaps in what is now an often-inadequate benefits system. And that is even before you add in the soup kitchens, lunch clubs and other less formal ways of providing Londoners with food aid.
What is less clear is the absolute number of people living in food insecurity – people who cut back on the amount of food they eat, or have poor diets because of the need to buy cheap food, such as the woman I met on my first ever visit to a food bank run by Pecan in Peckham. A single mother whose outgoings could never be matched by her income, she knew if she had a pound it would be healthier to spend it on a bag of apples than a packet of sausages, but a sausage casserole could feed her and her son for three days.
How many people are there like her? We simply don’t know because all we have to go on are estimates based largely on the numbers of people living in poverty, children entitled to free school meals and the proxy measures of food insecurity from organisations like the Trussell Trust. This lack of information matters, not least because not measuring the numbers of people living in or at risk of food poverty says something about what the government thinks is important.
The organisation End Hunger UK has argued that the cost of measuring and understanding food poverty right across the country would be negligible and make a significant contribution to tackling the crisis we now face. It’s demoralising, though unsurprising, that a government whose policies have triggered such widespread food insecurity is unwilling to address it.
At MQT, the Mayor dropped in to his answer to my question about child hunger that his food strategy committed to quantifying food insecurity in London. This marks a major step forward. We will finally, in London at least, start to get a better understanding of the true scale of the problem. What matters gets measured and what’s measured gets done. Maybe, armed with this knowledge, we can start to reverse the hideous upward trend in food insecurity and food bank use in London.
Fiona Twycross is a Londonwide London Assembly Member, deputy mayor for fire and resilience and a member of the Assembly’s economy committee. The image is from the cover of the Mayor’s London Food Strategy document.