Serving up a safety net – how local authorities are helping to alleviate food poverty

Source: PSE - Oct/Nov 2015

Ben Reynolds, deputy co-ordinator at Sustain, explains how local authorities in London are trying to tackle the growing challenge of food poverty.

Food banks are getting a lot of press these days, and for good reason. Many argue they are an indicator of a deepening crisis with more people falling into food poverty. Others say their profile is self-perpetuating: the more you hear about them, the greater their use. What is clear is that no-one, the food bank organisations included, would argue they are a long-term solution.

This is why on 21 October we will publish London’s first Food Poverty Profile, looking at what local authorities can do ‘Beyond the Food Bank’.

While the key causes of food poverty must be addressed at national level, local authorities play a crucial role in increasing family incomes, minimising the cost of living and ensuring local services help families struggling to make ends meet.

Our report brings together a range of interventions within council control. We hope this will empower local authorities to better value what they are already doing to help their residents, and ideally secure if not increase this safety net.

Looking at support from infants through to old age, the initiatives can be split into those that help put more money in the pockets of those in need (healthy start vouchers, breastfeeding, living wage, free school meals, along with breakfast clubs and holiday meal provision), and those that help provide access (improving physical access and supporting meals on wheels).

A striking finding in the report is that there are an estimated 220,557 pupils in London schools in poverty who are not enrolled in free school meals, most of whom are not eligible. That’s 18% of London pupils. This underlines the value of the universal scheme, which provides free school meals to all four to seven year olds nationally. Notably, four London boroughs offer free school meals to all primary-age children. When you consider that a further 26,255 pupils are enrolled for free school meals but are not eating them, down to reasons such as stigma, the case for universality becomes stronger as a way to increase uptake in those who would benefit most.

In some cases the report underlines existing fears, such as the cuts to meals on wheels services. Only 19 million meals on wheels are served in the UK each year, compared with 40 million 10 years ago. Worryingly, one-third of councils nationally no longer provide meals on wheels services, including 10 London boroughs. Another seven of the capital’s boroughs have cut back to providing only frozen meal delivery, or vouchers for local lunch clubs, supermarkets or takeaways. Other boroughs have increased prices, placing the service out of reach to many older people.

Two things have come out clearly in compiling the report. With 27 out of the 33 London boroughs responding to our survey, this shows the majority are fully aware of the crisis. What is also clear is that many have not viewed these initiatives under one umbrella before. As they are run, supported or promoted by different departments, they are rarely part of a joined-up strategy to tackle food poverty, with a handful of exceptions.

In some cases London councils have not recognised the impact that these initiatives can have. Take healthy start vouchers: we conservatively estimate that they could increase the food budget of families with young children by between 14-25%. Yet we are seeing a fall in uptake nationally. Why? Is it a lack of knowledge of the vouchers? A lack of suitable outlets locally to redeem the vouchers? Both these areas are within most public health teams’ remit, a role that may not be recognised or valued suitably outside of their department.

Part of the purpose of this London report, and our work nationally through the Sustainable Food Cities network is to start reframing efforts to alleviate food poverty Beyond the Food Bank; to raise the profile and the value of what local authorities can do, and in many cases are already doing.


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