Eradicating food poverty

Belfast City councillor Julie-Anne Corr outlines her desire to make food poverty a thing of the past in Northern Ireland.

Having participated in two cross-agency events on tackling food poverty, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak to a wider audience on a topic close to my heart. Food Poverty is the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet. It is about the quality of food as well as quantity.

How many people in Northern Ireland experience food poverty? Given the lack of agreed indicators or measures, the following estimate should be treated with caution, and the figure is likely much higher. One organisation out of 36 is reported to have supplied emergency food parcels to as many as 11,000 people here. If we extrapolate that to all 36 organisations we reach a figure of 396,000. The true figure is unknown, for now we rely on estimates, and the anecdotal evidence of food bank staff who advise that they are receiving more visits daily.

Why are we seeing this new phenomenon in a developed and wealthy country? What is the cause? Food poverty and economic poverty are linked. Tax, rent and debt are all fixed costs whereas food is the flexible household bill.

Research tells us that the two main causes of food poverty are low household incomes and benefit sanctions. Low household incomes are generally a result of zero hour contracts, commission only employment, unemployment or the fact that our national minimum wage is not enough to afford a decent quality of life.

Statistics published by DEL and DETI in 2015 reveal that there are 55,000 people unemployed in Northern Ireland but there are only 4,995 job vacancies. In other words, 90 per cent of those claiming job seekers allowance are condemned to unemployment, and thus, food (and fuel) poverty. The economy is not providing opportunities. Worryingly, some are trying to remove the safety net of the welfare system which was designed to ensure no-one goes hungry, cold, or without shelter.

At the ‘Enough is Enough’ food poverty conference in October 2015 delegates heard how one gentleman received a benefit sanction having missed his appointment with the job centre. He received no benefits because he had no money to cover the bus fare he needed to get there. Another gentleman received a sanction, when he too missed his job centre appointment, this time as a result of a death in the family.

There are countless examples available online relating to benefit sanctions which make for uncomfortable reading. It is unacceptable that any person should go without money due to a fault in our benefits system. Furthermore it is deplorable that in 2016 and in an advanced and civilised society such as ours, that someone should go hungry.

A vision for remedying this unjust and intolerable state of affairs is outlined in the ‘Hungry for Change’ report published by the Fabian Society. Available to download from www.fabians.org.uk

We must challenge the societal stigma that becoming ill or unemployed is a criminal offence and we must reframe poverty for what it is; a chronic social injustice and a source of misery for many of our citizens. A compassionate society will care for those in need whilst providing opportunity to regain independence. 

Beyond attending these events, I have used my position in council to advocate for those suffering food poverty. I proposed a motion to Belfast City Council that we lobby our MEPs with regards to European food waste and write to the Minister of Social Development encouraging an urgent review of benefit sanctions. I also seconded a motion that has initiated a council led feasibility study with regards to a rates incentive, similar to Liverpool, for living wage employers. Both motions were passed, however, we are still destroying edible food every day, benefit claimants continue to receive sanctions, low household incomes are prevalent and the number of people using food banks continues to climb. 

Join me in working to eradicate food poverty and build a compassionate, caring society. Email your local representatives and give them reason to pay attention.

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