Addressing poverty cannot be achieved via focus on food

By Dr Maddy Power, Welcome Trust Research Fellow, University of York

“Our scope does not cover the economic measures required to structure a fairer society, nor have we been asked to suggest changes to the benefits system more broadly. Ideally, of course, the true cost of eating healthily should be calculated into benefits payments.” (p. National Food Strategy p. 63)

Henry Dimbleby is upfront in Part 2 of his National Food Strategy that commentary or recommendations relating to social security or wages are outside of his remit. One might argue he has been set a rather impossible task: to review access to food without making recommendations on how we as a society ensure that people have the resources they need to purchase that food.

His analysis and recommendations therefore focus on changing eating habits and targeted food- based interventions for children. In a  section on dietary inequalities, he details the high-fat, high sugar diets of people living on low incomes and outlines the associated sharp variation in different dietary related conditions according to the affluence of an area. He attempts to debunk stigmatising and individualising narratives responsibilising food poverty and obesity, writing:

“By now some readers may be writhing irritably in their seats, wondering whatever happened to personal responsibility. The wartime generation managed to survive on scraps through careful budgeting and menu planning. Lentils are cheap. Isn’t eating badly a symptom of laziness, rather than just poverty? … The fact is, we live in a completely different food landscape from that of our thrifty grandparents. As we saw in the previous chapter, unhealthy food is cheaper per calorie than healthy food. This is especially true when you factor in the “opportunity cost” of cooking from scratch. If you’re tired and short of time – and especially if you’re not a confident cook – it makes economic sense to buy a box of chicken and chips instead of toiling at the stove. Especially as you can be sure the kids will eat it, so there’s no danger of it going to waste.” (p.61-62)

Dimbleby rightly critiques these narratives, pointing to the high cost of ‘healthy food’ and the ‘opportunity cost’ of cooking from scratch. And yet, Dimbleby gives too much ground by paying heed at all to these widely discredited stigmatising tropes. This is especially the case given the report’s heavy focus on food habits and, as a (stated) consequence of its remit, neglect of the structural drivers of poverty. This then gives credibility and ground to the re-orientation of poverty as ‘food poverty’ or ‘food insecurity’. The inability to purchase an adequate diet is reframed as a question of nutrition and food skills not income poverty. The report may speak well to questions of international trade standards and green farming but if ‘economic measures required to structure a fairer society’ are outside of its remit it arguably cannot speak to questions of (food) poverty.

The recommendations reflect this tension at the heart of the report’s assessment of dietary inequalities, tackling the symptom of poverty (food) rather than the cause (low income). Child poverty is addressed by increasing the eligibility threshold for Free School Meals and extending funding for the Holiday and Activities programme for the next three years, while poor culinary skills are targeted via a reboot of food education in schools. Increasing the eligibility for Free School Meals is a much needed policy change which will improve the lives of over 1 million children, while continuation of the Holiday Food and Activity Programme will provide food and entertainment to thousands of children in the school holidays. But the reason these children need food support both in school and during the holidays is testament to the fact that their parents are living in poverty and unable to afford food for their  children (and themselves). Further recommendations on food poverty and poor diet are flavoured with a strong paternalistic slant: a tax on sugar and salt to increase the cost of ‘unhealthy’ food, and a proposal for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients who are obese and/or diabetic, and likely to be living in deprived communities.

It can be unfashionable to point out the reality that food poverty is a symptom of income poverty and, as such, requires income-based solutions. While well-meaning in its intentions, a report on access to ‘food’ can only report on just
that if it finds space to discuss and propose solutions to poverty.

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Prof Louise Heathwaite chairs Science Advisory Council

Food Systems Policy Hub Advisory Board member and N8 AgriFood Chair are among latest appointments to Defra’s Science Advisory Council.

Lancaster University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Heathwaite has been appointed by ministers to Chair the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Science Advisory Council.

Professor Heathwaite, who sits on the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub Advisory Board, will lead the Science Advisory Council for a period of three years, overseeing its work to provide expert independent advice on science policy and strategy to Defra.

This month also saw ministers appoint four new Council members, including Professor Lisa Collins, pictured below, who is an N8 AgriFood Chair at the University of Leeds. Professor Collins is Head of the School of Biology, Academic Director of the National Pig Centre, and Director of the Smart Agri-Systems research initiative at the University of Leeds

Professor Heathwaite and Professor Collins join fellow Science Advisory Council members Professor Richard Bardgett, Professor of Ecology at the University of Manchester; Professor Peter Cox, Professor of Climate System Dynamics, University of Exeter; Professor Lin Field, Head of Department of Biointeractions and Crop Protection, Rothamsted Research; Professor Rosie Hails, Director of Nature & Science, The National Trust; Professor Nicholas Hanley, Professor of Environmental and One Health Economics, Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow; Professor Rowland Kao – Sir Timothy O’Shea Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, University of Edinburgh; Professor Dame Henrietta Moore – Founder and Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity, University College London (UCL); Professor Susan Owens, Emeritus Professor of Environment and Policy and Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Professor James Wood – Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine and Alborada Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science, Cambridge University.

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