The capital is a city of inequalities; London has a vibrant and diverse food culture, but this sits alongside people struggling to feed themselves and their families. In recent years, use of food banks and pressure on households have increased. Sustain’s London Food Poverty Campaign helps London boroughs tackle the root causes of food poverty.

Over a quarter of Londoners live in poverty, and 700,000 are children. The household food budget is often under pressure when rent, utility and other bills need to be paid, or when there is an unexpected crisis or financial demand. The Trussell Trust food bank network gives out over 100,000 3-day food parcels a year in the capital, a testament to growing hunger and poverty. Recent data indicate this is set to continue this year. But these numbers present only a partial picture of the level of need in our city: alongside the Trust’s network there are a number of independent food banks and a wide range of other organisations offering food packages, prepared meals and other support. The London Food Poverty Campaign was set up by Sustain’s London Food Link in response to this rising demand for food aid.

Measuring what’s being done

Our campaign looks ‘beyond the food bank’ and identifies what London boroughs are doing and can do to reduce food insecurity in households across the city. While the work of the third sector in helping to alleviate hunger is critical, our initiative ensures the public sector steps up to its role.

It is very clear that some of the important factors contributing to food poverty sit with national government and employers. This includes limited access to and the cash value of benefits, benefit sanctions, delays to benefit payments and low wages. Benefit rates are increasingly divorced from theBeyondTheFoodBank2016_Cover_Large real cost of living, and it’s important to recognise that many of those living in poverty and in receipt of some welfare support are in households where someone is in work.

The two annual Beyond the Food Bank reports have established ten measures against which to assess the impact of London boroughs’ efforts to address the drivers of food poverty and develop sustainable responses. This year, for the first time, we determined an overall score for each borough’s response. The scores vary hugely – between 17 and 79 per cent. Within this we also found that only a third of London boroughs had a distinct plan or strategy to tackle food poverty. 

Spreading good practice

Simon Shaw Healthy StartAn estimated 25,000 or more London households are losing out on over £6 million worth of Healthy Start vouchers, which help low income families to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This is to the detriment of individuals, but also to local retailers, including local street markets, which could increase trade by accepting these vouchers. Kingston has been running a campaign to increase uptake of Healthy Start vouchers. They have used different approaches, such as targeted publicity and mapping the retailers taking vouchers, to reach those who may be eligible for the scheme. There has been some early increases in numbers using the scheme and the borough is now working to increase retailers’ understanding and engagement with the scheme. By mapping retailers who currently accept the vouchers and the expected need, the borough can target resources effectively.

There has been growing awareness of ‘holiday hunger’ – caused by the lack of statutory food provision for children during the school holidays, (even for those who receive free school meals) – which an estimated 500,000 of London’s children are subject to. Despite this increased awareness only four boroughs are taking steps to track food provision during the school holidays. In Islington the council proactively tracks children’s access to food 365 days a year. This includes understanding the number of breakfast clubs during term-time and schemes where food is provided during the school holidays. The borough is therefore in a much better position to advise local people, and professionals who come in contact with them, about where support is available.

Low pay is a key driver of in-work poverty. The London Living Wage (as advocated by the Living Wage Foundation, rather than the Government’s National Living Wage) is one way to drive pay upwards. Yet more than half of London boroughs are not accredited as London Living Wage employers meaning their employees and those employed by their contactors have no guarantee of being paid at least the Living Wage. These boroughs are also in a weaker position if they try to encourage other local employers to sign up to the London Living Wage.

There is growing concern about isolation and malnutrition among older people. While 21 boroughs provide some level of meals on wheels service for older people and others at risk, 12 do not have any service of this kind. We know that there are really positive examples of providers providing a lot more than the meal – helping older people to stay connected to their local community and access other services. Hertfordshire Independent Living Service is bringing its successful meals on wheels service to London with a service in Camden in development. The service takes this ‘more than the meal’ approach, linking its customers to other services and supporting them to be active members of their local community.

London is home to a wide variety of food shops and restaurants, but many Londoners struggle to find affordable healthy food near to where they live. For many, the choices are limited with food availability skewed towards less healthy options. Those on low incomes often live in areas where convenience stores sell a limited range of healthy food, and fast food outlets dominate. In Sutton, the council has taken action to limit the number and concentration of hot food takeaways, especially near schools, and has harnessed the planning system to regulate this.

There are a number of boroughs who are taking a particularly strategic approach to tackling food poverty. In Lewisham, the Lewisham Food Partnership was established to bring together the council, public sector agencies, community organisations, social enterprises and others to work together to address a wide range of pressing food issues. The partnership is based on the Sustainable Food Cities model, an approach which seeks to harness the value of organisations coming together to develop plans and take action on sustainability issues. The Partnership has also used Sustain’s food poverty framework to monitor progress and improve coordination specifically in relation to tackling food poverty. It has had a number of successes, including increasing awareness of Healthy Start, securing free porridge to all school pupils as part of the school’s catering contract and developing joint proposals to tackle ‘holiday hunger’.

Next steps

Sustain currently has funding to produce two further reports this year on the state of hunger in the capital and what’ s being done about it. These reports will continue to measure each borough’s activity and map progress towards the outlined aims. Importantly, the reports present real-life case studies of what has been done and recommendations addressing hunger and deprivation.

The Mayor of London recently awarded funding to five boroughs to develop ‘food poverty action plans’. Sustain will be offering advice and constructive challenges to these boroughs as they develop these plans, acting as a ‘critical friend’ in the process. Sustain will then share any learning more widely with other boroughs, building on Sustain’s guide Developing food poverty action plans.

There are a number of wider challenges that we face in ensuring that the reduction of food poverty is a priority. Reform of social security and the social service safety net is critical. This should include increasing the overall amount of assistance for households both in and out of work, reviewing sanctions and conditionality regimes to ensure proportionality and increasing support for households in crisis through local welfare assistance schemes.

The ongoing squeeze on the value of benefits will be even more pronounced when the expected rise in food prices hits. Councils, advice agencies and others are very concerned about the further roll-out of Universal Credit (which will replace the major in-work and out-of- work benefits) in its current form, including the built-in 5 to 6-week delay before people will receive their benefit payments.

There is much that can be learnt from the work being done in London and the rest of the UK in tackling the root causes of food poverty. Understanding the successes is important, especially in relation to how work can be replicated or adapted for specific local needs. It is also vital that people share what hasn’t worked so well or what has led to unintended consequences, so that learning is disseminated across the country. Local areas should develop and own local solutions, but it’s important for them to not to ‘reinvent the wheel’. The Sustainable Food Cities network shares information between locales through written materials, case studies and an annual conference.

In these uncertain times, on the cusp of Brexit and with food prices likely to rise, pressure on poorer households will probably increase. Cities and communities across the UK must do what they can to mitigate the impact of poverty and food insecurity and work to guarantee a right to food for all. Ongoing pressures on councils, schools, public health departments and adult social care services’ do mean public services can face challenges in taking a preventative approach and Government must ensure that public services have the ability and resources to do this.

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About Sustain and London Food Link

Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity. London Food Link is the umbrella for all of Sustain’s initiatives in London. Our work includes helping to influence local government policy, hands-on food growing training, running sessions for public sector caterers and supporting the independent food sector.

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