Agenda: We must challenge the extreme poverty we find at home

FOR the first time in more than a decade, new United Nations data suggests that world hunger is on the rise again. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, yet, about 800 million people suffer from hunger. That is one in nine people. Sixty per cent are women.

When we imagine world hunger, we think of the problems of far-away places – conditions of war, drought, and famine which make accessing enough food almost impossible. These may not be problems we immediately associate with our own communities here in Scotland: people might struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month, but no one is really going hungry in a country as wealthy as ours, are they?

Alarmingly, the United Nations report also shows that a big number of people in the UK are at risk of going hungry – food insecurity levels in the UK are among the highest in Europe. In fact, they are second only to Albania and higher than many parts of Asia and South America.

This is a problem of poverty and structural food injustice.

Benefit levels in the UK fall well below the cost of living; precarious work and low pay mean in-work poverty is on the rise. Sanctions and delays in processing applications often leave people claiming benefits with no money at all.

Recent Oxford University research found 40 per cent of foodbank users had experienced a benefit delay, and one in five of them had been waiting for seven weeks or more without payment. Universal Credit has a built-in six week wait time between application and payment, inevitably forcing even greater numbers into destitution.

Our social security system is failing to protect people against the sorts of extreme poverty we might only expect to see in poorer countries.

Isabelle from East Ayrshire is one person I met recently who’s being failed by the system. She told me: “I’ve just not eaten since Friday basically. Yesterday I was so ill because I just had no energy, I was just living on cups of tea.”

A Menu for Change: Cash, Rights, Food is a new project tackling the underlying problems that leave people like Isabelle hungry.

Oxfam Scotland, Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, Nourish Scotland and the Poverty Alliance have joined forces to deliver this work – recognising that people need cash and dignity in a crisis; and that we also need to take preventative action, not just apply a sticking plaster.

This means making it easier for people to get all the cash payments they are entitled to, including access to advice to help avoid crises in the future. We’ll be testing new ways of working and celebrating best practice; as well as calling for policy change which will protect people from hunger.

Reflecting on the hunger faced by too many here and around the world today, as we approach World Food Day, our task of eradicating poverty and hunger may seem impossible.

But tomorrow marks the start of Challenge Poverty Week, and we should use this week as a reminder that we have a chance to take real action now to address the problems of poverty which are driving food insecurity here in Scotland.

A Scottish social security system could take bold steps to ensure benefit levels are enough to guarantee an adequate standard of living, as well as protect people from gaps in income caused by delays and errors. Government and employers also need to ensure work is a reliable route out of poverty, including paying the real Living Wage and improving job security.

There’s nothing inevitable about hunger, and there’s nothing inevitable about poverty.

—– ENDS —–

From The Herald By Mary Anne MacLeod, Research and Policy Officer, A Menu for Change