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What needs to be done to end food hunger in Britain?

"Whenever a British politician says something is not possible, it is always worth checking to see if it is indeed being done elsewhere in Europe."

Danny Dorling19 September 2023

What needs to be done to end food hunger in Britain?

In November 2020, the Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford managed to get the government in England to change its mind about allowing children to go hungry. The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had already decided that children in the poorest households should not starve during school holidays. On 9 November 2020, the UK prime minister phoned Rashford to let him know that £396 million was to be committed so that children in the poorest families in England could also have a bit more to eat over the coming Christmas, and during the Easter and summer holidays of 2021. This news was reported to children through the BBC’s Newsround programme.

By the summer of 2022, government support had been cut to as low as £1.66 a day per child during the summer holidays in England, less than half the amount allocated in Wales, and less than the £4 a day allowed in some parts of Scotland. Unfortunately, no new football star emerged to shame the government into action that year.

The last time food was such a topical issue as it is today was in the ‘hungry’ 1930s. The great shame then was the prevalence of soup kitchens, and the need for them to exist at all in the fourth decade of the twentieth century. That scourge had been identified as avoidable decades earlier. In 1904 the York chocolate-factory owner Joseph Rowntree established a foundation in his name with the explicit purpose of ending the need for soup kitchens. They had been commonplace for at least half a century by 1904, with Joseph’s own father having helped to establish one in York in the middle of the nineteenth century. It would be another fifty years before they were all but gone.

Significant hunger did not reappear until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, introducing policies that caused poverty to rise quickly in the 1980s. In the early 1970s, one of her first acts as Education Secretary had been to remove the provision of free milk for school children, earning her the nickname ‘milk snatcher’. The milk had been given to children to improve their nutrition, and especially their intake of calcium for their growing teeth and bones. The mass unemployment of the early 1980s, which Thatcher thought of as necessary, was accompanied by mass destitution. Eventually the mass unemployment abated, but in its place inequality increased, expanding the group at the bottom of society that had less and less money for basic needs – which often meant less food, and certainly less nutritious food for a healthier start in life.

There were other ways the poor were made even poorer under Thatcher than simply through rising unemployment, inequality and poverty. She is often idolised by her supporters as a tax cutter, but she was not. She did cut the size of the state and public spending, but she did not cut taxes overall. Between 1979 and 1990, the basic rate of income tax was reduced from 33 per cent to 25 per cent, and the top rate slashed from 83 per cent to 40 per cent. But at the same time, Thatcher raised both VAT (from 8 per cent to 15 per cent) and National Insurance contributions. The result was that the overall share of GDP taken in tax hardly changed: it was 30 per cent in 1978–79 and still 30 per cent in 1990–91.

What did change was who paid most of that tax. Everyone has to pay VAT, including the very poorest. It is a regressive tax. And everyone in employment has to pay National Insurance, although those in self-employment pay much less. Thatcher’s tax rises for the poor helped ensure that they had less money for food. Her fiscal policy made the rich richer and the poor poorer. This led to a growing need for charity and eventually food banks, at first slowly, and then in ever greater numbers, set up by volunteers – most of them wishing that they did not have to. 

If we wish to see food banks disappear, there is much that needs to be done. Taxes need to be changed so that the poor are no longer taxed relatively more than the rich as a share of their income. VAT is a very unfair tax, and it should be minimised. Benefits must be raised above the levels needed to barely survive. Low wages need to be increased faster than the increases in the cost of food. How can all this be afforded? By ensuring that wages rise by fixed amounts across the board, not by percentages; by ensuring that high salaries do not rise when inflation does and that progressive taxes are increased to take up the slack of minimising regressive ones; and ultimately by ensuring that food is not wasted.

You do that by having a more equal society in which the well-off cannot be so profligate. You level, not up, not down, but across. In answer to how we can afford to end hunger: there is no need to import more food into the UK, or grow more, for there to be enough food for no one to go hungry. We waste so much already and would waste much less if its relative cost to the better-off were higher. The inefficiency involved in people with a little more money buying extra cans of soup at the supermarket to put in the trolley for the local food bank is stunningly high, and it does not get the right nutrients to the people who most need them. A more equal society is both a less hungry society and a much better-fed society.

Supermarkets can be taxed depending on how high they price certain goods. They can be incentivised to ensure that basic fruits and vegetables are available and affordable. To do this they would have to pay their shareholders a lower dividend, or increase the prices of other less essential goods. With their monopoly hold over consumers, they now provide a part-public service, so they have to be considered as part of the quasi-public sector, providing an essential service.

In the immediate future, school lunches should be made universally available across the UK all year round, and funded at £4 a meal to ensure they are high quality, because the food that children eat affects their long-term health much more than for adults. The prices of essential foods can be capped and supermarkets taxed or fined if they do not adhere to the cap. What is seen as an essential food differs between countries and is not merely about nutrition. In states more compassionate and equitable than the UK, the need for there to be affordable basic food and drink when you are out and about and mixing with other people is also seen as essential.

In 2014, a cap was successfully introduced on the beaches of Greece to stop greedy proprietors trying to charge more than €1.15 for a cheese toastie. By 2022 simple price controls on basic food-stuffs had been extended to the food and drinks sold in airports, cinemas, theatres, bus stations, hospitals, clinics, archaeological sites and museums, passenger ships, trains, sports grounds, courts, nursing homes, universities and schools. The items affected included bottled water of any kind, which was capped at half a euro for half a litre. A single Greek coffee was capped at €1.20, French filter coffee at €1.30, an espresso coffee at €1.45, a frappé at €1.30 and English tea at €1.30. Passengers travelling in first class could be charged more.

The point of these price regulations was to stop exploitation. By 2022 the price of a toastie in Greece had risen by 10 cents to €1.25, or €1.45 if it also contained ham. These were among the limited set of items that Greeks could always assume would be available at affordable prices when they travelled, and there were other controls for essentials they could buy to eat at home. The price caps kept down inflation, or in the case of the toastie at least slowed its price rise considerably. It is entirely possible to implement such measures – but it is hard to even imagine this happening in Britain. 

If the price of cheese toasties on Greek beaches can be capped, a UK government could, if it wanted to, ensure that essential food items are affordable everywhere in Britain. Whenever a British politician says something is not possible, it is always worth checking to see if it is indeed being done elsewhere in Europe. They used to regularly claim that ‘EU rules prevented it’, but that was rarely true. Basic foodstuffs need not be unaffordable for anyone. We should not have to rely on one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains making basic children’s meals available for £1 in its cafés out of the kindness of the bosses’ hearts (and to attract shoppers). In July 2022 the chain announced that: ‘Baby food is also available as part of the initiative, with little ones able to enjoy a free pouch of Ella’s Kitchen baby food.’ That offer ended on 4 September 2022.

At the very least, a government that wants to ensure we do not live in a country where people go hungry could pass legislation so that basic foodstuffs are not sold at prohibitive prices. If supermarkets and other large shops need to sell more fancy goods at higher prices to cross-subsidise, then so be it. If a government does almost nothing of any consequence to relieve hunger, then you have to assume that it wants a large group of people to be sufficiently hungry to cause them to desperately try to find even more underpaid work in order to quell their own hunger and that of their children.

— An excerpt from Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of A Failing State by Danny Dorling


Shattered Nation
Britain was once the leading economy in Europe; it is now the most unequal. In Shattered Nation, leading geographer and author of Inequality and the 1% shows that we are growing further and further...