Modern food poverty is about families only being able to afford highly processed foods that damage both health and the environment, a select committee has heard.
The Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee was set up in June 2019 to examine the links between inequality, public health and food sustainability.
The committee heard on Tuesday (4 February) that while there could be ways to make manufacturers produce healthier foods and be more sustainable, the only way to end food poverty is for the Government to ensure that people had enough money to feed themselves well.
Alex Holt, programme lead for Food Active healthy weight programme, said: “Food poverty doesn’t exist because there’s not enough food. It’s because families can’t afford to purchase and consume healthy foods, and are therefore at greater risk of poor health and associated non-communicable diseases, and health inequalities.
“It’s important to note that people in poverty aren’t necessarily going hungry. Lower income households tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on food, but to make this income go further many are buying cheaper and less nutritious foods.
“So you have the issue of modern malnutrition, where there’s high rates of obesity but those who have obesity are consuming nutritionally poor diets.”
Holt added that as a nation we rely a lot on convenience foods, which “threaten the environment in ways we may not be aware of in terms of transportation and packaging”.
Tom Andrews, programme manager for the Sustainable Food Cities partnership, noted very processed foods – that tended to be high in salt, fat and sugar – had long shelf lives, which was attractive to people on low incomes concerned about reducing waste.
He added: “There is a systemic issue here that a whole basis of food industry predicates against low processed food – there is no money in selling a head of broccoli, there is only money in high level processing which is about value added, very significant packaging because it’s about selling.
“So the whole system – if your driver is to make profit – is to sell the kind of products that are probably causing most of the problems.
But he added: “Food aid is not a long-term solution to food poverty. We accept it as part of our programme that it is a necessarily short term solution but we have got to find a long term solution that is not about giving people food charity.”
The committee heard how the taxpayer was picking up the tab from the food manufacturers through the cost of paying for the NHS to deal with diet related disease. Andrews suggested a “polluter pays” approach ought to be applied to food manufacturers as the “cost of the system is being put onto the people consuming the food, whether that’s through a poor diet or too much and somehow we have to shift the system.”
Andrews argued that we are “fooling ourselves” if we think it’s all about consumer choice and ignore the “unbelievable” amount of money spent on advertising.
But he added: “Fundamentally what the Government needs to do is find a way of making sure people have enough money to feed themselves well, and that’s whether there’s change to the food manufacturers and system or not.”