Food Fight

Ever felt there’s a massive elephant in the room that someone else is flatly refusing to see?

Our elephant in this story is the principle of basic human rights and our room is the Food Poverty Summit, presented by the Manchester Evening News (MEN) as part of the city’s Food and Drink Festival. And the elephant-denier? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Paul Maynard MP, Conservative member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

It was said at the meeting that half a million people in the UK now rely on food banks and 40% of Manchester’s children live below the poverty line. And that the UK produces 350,000 tons of ‘surplus food’ each year.

Mr Maynard was part of a panel which also represented Fareshare, a food distribution charity; Public Health Manchester and the regional Poverty Commission. By way of introduction, he gave a quick outline of his constituency’s impressive deprivation credentials like displaying a badge of honour. He knows poor people – he understands.

When a fellow panelist said there should be no need for food banks in modern Britain, his response was “Idealism is a good thing.” I assume that means we should be realistic and just accept that there will always be people who have to surrender their dignity and become charity cases, simply because they’re hungry. It’s just the way it is. He then talked of personal responsibility and freedom of choice, which I therefore took to mean the responsibility to pay the gas bill and the freedom to go without food in order to do it.

He didn’t feel it was the role of government to “normalise food poverty” (by feeding people) and he had “no desire to nationalise compassion”. When referring to the Kelloggs-MEN project Give a Child a Breakfast, he said such initiatives should have clear outcomes, such as better school attendance and improved educational attainment. What about healthier, happier children with full bellies rather than empty ones, better able to cope alongside their better-fed, better-funded peers?

So when does feeding malnourished citizens stop being an act of charity and start being a role of government? When there’s a natural disaster? When we qualify for airdrops of UN food parcels? Mr Maynard singled out companies that increase their profits by exploiting  the ‘poverty premium’ (he named payday lender Wonga, and HP specialists Bright House) and public sector workers that take too long to process benefits for particular blame. Even if that were entirely true – especially the latter statement – poverty isn’t just about lack of cash – it’s about lack of opportunity and lack of access to services, education and welfare.

I’d suggest the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit, increasing reliance on IT for cheap service delivery (meaning even less access for the digitally excluded) and the ongoing demonisation of those least able to defend themselves as very much the responsibility of government. The food poverty is a crisis of the Conservative government’s making.

That’s the same government which refuses to interfere in the food industry, making participation in honest and transparent nutritional labelling a matter of commercial choice, rather than law. It’s the one which encourages private sector food welfare schemes as potential sponsorship opportunities. It’s also the government that’s allowed the development of a monstrously bloated supermarket sector to create ‘food deserts’ – deprived areas with no healthy retail offer, because there isn’t enough money to be made from it. It seems that our importance as citizens is now directly related to our ability to consume – both in food and in retail terms.

When did the business of basic human rights (UDHR Article 25, seeing as you’re asking) cease to be a responsibility of government?

Did I miss a memo?

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