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08 December 2014

Church leaders join the call for action on hunger in the UK

Church leaders have joined the call of parliamentarians for urgent action on hunger in the UK. An inquiry led by Frank Field MP and the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, has called for action by the government to tackle both the present crisis, and address the underlying causes.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote ahead of the launch in the Mail on Sunday: "The findings paint a stark picture: hunger stalks large parts of our country. For many this will have resulted from a sudden crisis or an event, which has thrown life's certainties into the air… The scenario here can often be mercilessly straightforward: when an additional expense arrives out of the blue or expected income is missed, bare cupboards and empty stomachs swiftly follow. Even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against these situations."

Welby concluded: "It's clear to me that, as a society, we are seeking and striving for justice, fairness and responsibility. The challenge is to find the paths that let us follow that moral compass."

The report issued by a cross-party inquiry calls for a publicly-funded body, Feeding Britain, to be set up to coordinate the activity of food banks and expand their work to help people find a route out of hunger and food poverty. Specifically, the report calls for the availability of free school meals during the holidays and a higher minimum wage.

The inquiry found that there were a wide range of factors that required people to use food banks, but chief among these were experiences of the benefit system that include the sanctions regime - in some cases leaving people receiving no money whatsoever. To address this, the report calls for a 'yellow card system' to reduce the impact and the damage withdrawal of benefits can lead to.

A further recommendation of the report considered the waste of food, particularly from supermarkets, describing it as indefensible, and called for more to be done to prevent waste and provide assistance to those who need it most at the same time.

The work of food banks across the UK is praised by the inquiry. 

Tim Thornton, in his introduction comments, said: "We have seen marvellous work being carried out by volunteers, which should be celebrated. We have witnessed some of the best aspects of human nature, as tens of thousands of people have responded to real need by creating organisations such as food banks."

Britain's poorest households spend a far higher proportion of their income on food fuel and housing. In the 10 years since 2003, these items take up 40 per cent of income for the poorest household, compared to 17 per cent for the richest, with inflation impacting the poorest the most - the cost increases at twice the rate for the poorest as for the richest. 

The impact of price rise for these three basic utilities have eroded the value of the National Minimum Wage and working age benefits, and placed low income households at increased risk of hunger, especially as food can be flexible while housing and fuel bills rarely are.

Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance commented on the report's findings and recommendations: "Christmas is about gifts: God's gift to us, and our gifts to each other. Yet many families have nothing to give this Christmas. These report findings show us that despite the great wealth in our society, it is the unemployed and the working poor who are suffering the most because of our economic difficulties.

"While the rising the rising cost of food, fuel and housing continues to expose more people to food poverty, it is simply unacceptable the benefit system has been identified as exacerbating rather than alleviating the problem.

"Today, the Church is increasingly being called on to compensate for the failures of the state. Yet we cannot be drawn into supplanting one dependency culture with another. The goal of the Church is to banish food banks, not to proliferate them – to enable families to live with security and dignity. As such I hope the government will respond to these disturbing findings by initiating a long-term strategy in partnership with faith communities and others to address the structural and cultural issues that are making people hungry in the UK."

Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust, Britain's largest provider of food banks, said: "This powerful cross-party document validates what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time about the distressing reality of hunger in the UK, and it turns the spotlight on the specific problems that need addressing. People calling for action on hunger in the UK have not been scaremongering. The overall volume of people needing help from the UK's food banks has to be reduced."

Rev Keith Hebden, spokesman for the End Hunger Fast campaign, commented: "We call for urgent government action to adopt the recommendations within this report to ensure all can live a life of dignity, free from poverty. Intervention is sorely needed to protect people from poverty and not leave them stranded in an insecure jobs market." 

Read the full report at www.foodpovertyinquiry.org.