Food poverty, or insecurity, is a personal tragedy for many people. More than 350,000 people had to turn to emergency food banks between April and September this year, according to the Trussell Trust, one of the largest providers of food banks in the UK. Many people will have distressing stories of why they are using a food bank, and over the past week, concerned health practitioners have raised the alarm over the rise in their use.
Food poverty is a legitimate area of concern for PHE, entrusted with protecting the nation’s health and addressing inequalities. Healthy diets are not just a basic human need. They are also vital for public health. We know that unhealthy diets are a major factor behind this country’s burden of chronic disease. An unhealthy diet is not just one of excess, some people may also struggle to buy the food they want or need.
The recession and squeezed household budgets have had an impact on the types of food people have been buying. They’re opting for cheaper food, which may be as good nutritionally as more expensive alternatives, but a greater cause for concern is that we are seeing reduced purchases of fruit and vegetables across the whole population, with the biggest effect in low income households.
However, there’s still a lot that we don’t know and need to understand about food banks. We don’t know for certain how many people are using food banks across the country or who may need to use them but choose not to. And while we have some insights into why some people are attending food banks, the picture is far from complete. That is the sort of information we need to assess what policy and practical responses are required, at both national and local level.
As a public health organisation, we are concerned about both the short-term and long-term impacts that reduced intake of healthy foods may have both on individuals and the nation’s health. We are concerned also that these trends could be an indicator of widening inequalities, and are therefore committed to supporting effective responses to address the problem, ensuring that the right solutions are applied for the greatest impact.
For PHE, the seriousness of the issue is further grounded in the evidence we already have that unhealthy diets contribute to some of our biggest killers (some cancers and cardiovascular disease). They compound other risk factors, such as lack of physical activity, smoking and drinking too much and, as habits are laid down early in life, unhealthy diets can become perniciously hard for youngsters to shake-off, saddling them with poorer health outcomes later in life.
We need a public debate on the best way forward in dealing with food poverty. We know that a number of locally-led initiatives are tackling this problem and providing an emergency response for those who are facing food insecurity, through the support of food banks. But this alone is not an adequate response for a national problem. As a national body focused on prevention and national health promotion, we believe we also need a strategic and a comprehensive response – a response that addresses the systemic causes of food poverty.
PHE is gathering the information not just about the distribution, scale, and determinants of food poverty but also about the range of alternative approaches that can help people to have easier access to an affordable healthy diet, particularly for those who are in challenging financial positions. Examples of these different approaches include the social supermarket model, community based food cooperatives, such as the one in the London Borough of Lambeth, and a community-led Foodshare project in Dumbartonshire. There is much local innovation in tackling this issue, and PHE will continue to work with our local authority partners to understand these approaches, spread good practice and enhance local responsiveness to this problem. Where there are national level solutions we will advocate for change, and work with relevant stakeholders to find the most effective and impactful interventions.