We can all tackle the root causes of hunger

Hunger is usually a symptom of poverty but is also the result of a complex set of factors, not simply lack of employment or income. Dan Crossley, Executive Director at the Food Ethics Council, tells us what we need to do to tackle the root causes of poverty and hunger.

‘Poverty Bites’ was the name of a 2001 book, and sadly that phrase still rings true today. Being in poverty and being food insecure are linked but are not the same thing. Household food insecurity is ‘the inability to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food for health, in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so’. Hunger is usually a symptom of poverty but is also the result of a complex set of factors, not simply lack of employment or income.

If we want to tackle hunger, because it is morally and ethically unacceptable for the UK, we need to start by looking at what is driving it. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for poverty (Goal 1) and hunger (Goal 2) can help us do this.  

Poverty in the food sector

In the UK, in-work poverty rates are highest for those working in accommodation and food services (25%), and agriculture, forestry and fishing (23%). Hence a sizeable minority of those working in food and farming sectors are at risk of in-work poverty. Low pay in much of our food, agriculture and fishing sectors is an important contributor. According to Food Foundation research, 62% of employees in food retail, 83% of waiters and 36% in agriculture & fishing in the UK are paid below a real living wage.

Ultimately, governments have a duty to protect their citizens, provide a properly functioning safety net and fulfil the universal right to food – so everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious, culturally-appropriate food. Nevertheless, some of the drivers of poverty directly link to organisations and we all have a role to play in ensuring this is addressed. Managers and executives in the food sector have a particular responsibility to pay and treat their employees – and indeed workers in their value chains – fairly, and at least as well as in other critical sectors. We’ve now seen first-hand the importance of this workforce in times of crises.

A minimum income standard, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is “based on what the public think we all need for a decent minimum living standard”. In recent years wages from businesses in the UK, including those in the food sector, have not risen in line with the cost of living.[1] Food and farming businesses are not immune from criticism in relation to the use of zero-hours contracts. Over half of people working in the food industry are paid less than the real living wage compared to around a fifth for the UK as a whole.

How businesses in the food system can tackle poverty and hunger

Firstly, they should ‘get their own houses in order’ by understanding the extent of food insecurity in their own businesses and supply chains – in a way that is appropriate, sensitive and respectful. For example, they could do a salary and contract review of all their employees and contracted workers and compare those with sustainable minimum income standards in the local area. Crucially, they must then act on those findings. 

Secondly, progressive businesses in food, farming and fishing sectors should lobby national governments to push for the right to food to be enshrined in legislation. The right to food protects the right of all people to live in dignity, free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. This will also help pioneering businesses, who want to support people’s livelihoods and right to food, by encouraging government to create a level-playing field.

Thirdly, food businesses should promote independence not dependence - empowering people, rather than locking them into a dependency on food banks and donations. This includes phasing out company-wide commitments, such as targets on surplus food redistribution, that risk entrenching the food charity model. Surplus food redistribution is only a sticking plaster to two distinct problems: (1) lack of food access and (2) food waste. Businesses need to instead play their part in reducing food waste production and ensure a living wage within their organisations and across their supply chains, as much as they can.

Too many people are going hungry. Understanding the root causes of poverty and hunger, and the connections between all the SDGs will be vital if we’re to work together to overcome our food system challenges.

Dan Crossley is Executive Director at the Food Ethics Council, a partner of UKSSD’s Food Systems Programme.

The Food Ethics Council is an independent think tank and registered charity whose mission is to accelerate the shift to fair food systems that respect people, animals and planet.