A group of MPs want the government to introduce a Minister for Hunger to respond to a growth in food insecurity in the UK – especially among children.
The Environmental Audit Committee highlighted 2017 Unicef figures showing 19% of children under 15 in the UK live with adults who struggle to buy food.
It says ministers have failed to recognise and respond to the problem.
The government says the number of children living in workless households is at a record low.
But MPs say the number of people without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food is “significant and growing”, with the unemployed, sick or those with children most likely to be affected.
The committee wants to see the appointment of a new minister with “responsibility and accountability for combating hunger and food insecurity within the UK”.
The job would involve exploring the scale, causes and impact of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition and implementing strategies to improve the situation.
“It’s all very well having a Minister for Hunger but they need someone who is normal,” says Jo Millner, who lives in York with her husband and 6-year-old-son.
She volunteers at a food bank and community hub, and her husband works full-time in two jobs, but they still struggle to feed their family.
“[The government] don’t have a clue what’s happening on the ground. They don’t see people crying their eyes out because they can’t afford to buy a bag of pasta,” she says.
After paying their mortgage, Jo, 43, says there’s often no money left for food and the family relies on food banks and support from her mother to survive.
“We pretty much live on pasta and rice,” she says.
“We can’t afford much fresh fruit and veg apart from what we get at the food bank. What we do get goes to our son because he needs to grow up healthy.”
She says most of the people her food bank helps are working – but many are on insecure contracts or only working a few hours a week.
“The government wants people in work but then you are penalised for being in work and lose your benefits,” she says.
“I’m working with a woman at the moment who has just gone from a 22-hour contract to a 30-hour contract and she’s actually worse off because now she doesn’t get school meals paid for.”
“We need to get all the different ministers to work together to tackle poverty,” she adds. “The whole system is broken.”
The committee’s report also suggests a close relationship between hunger and obesity.
“Insufficient access to food may lead to risk-averse purchasing habits and prioritisation of low-priced, filling foods with long shelf lives – which are often nutrient poor but calorie-rich,” the report says.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said that, since 2010, one million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty – including 300,000 children.
“Household incomes have never been higher and the number of children living in workless households is at a record low, but we know there’s more to do ensure that every family has access to nutritious, healthy food,” she said.
“We already provide support through free school meals and our Healthy Start Vouchers.”
But Labour MP Mary Creagh, who is chairwoman of the committee, said more children were growing up in homes where parents do not have enough money to put food on the table.
“The combination of high living costs, stagnating wages and often, the roll-out of Universal Credit and the wider benefits system, means that levels of hunger in Britain are some of the highest across Europe.
“We found that nearly one in five children under 15 are living in a food insecure home – a scandal which cannot be allowed to continue.”
Ms Creagh said urgent action was needed.
“This can only be addressed by setting clear UK-wide targets and by appointing a Minister for Hunger to deliver them.”
Emma Revie, chief executive of The Trussell Trust, which runs more than 420 food banks across the UK, welcomed the idea of a hunger minister.
“It’s time for the government to take concrete steps towards a UK where everyone has enough money for food,” she said.
“Although food bank volunteers are providing vital support to those in crisis, no charity can replace people having enough money for the basics.
“To end hunger, we need to understand the true scale of the challenge, and work across government to ensure everyone is anchored from being swept into poverty.”
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