We live in a time of overabundant food production. Despite this, almost a billion people go hungry every day.
Did you watch Channel 4’s latest sensational documentary Junk Food Kids? If so, you probably shared the sense of outrage that exploded across social media when scenes featuring obese children with decaying teeth were broadcast.
But the presence of fat children on our screens masks the fact that we are currently facing an unnecessary global starvation epidemic. We live in a time of overabundant food production. Despite this, almost a billion people go hungry every day. These figures are no longer only applicable to the developing world.
According to recent statistics, one in five British children now lives below the poverty line. Speak to those working in paediatric medicine in Britain today and they’ll tell you that A&E departments are not just hosting overweight children with health problems but, especially in school holiday time, kids that are seriously under-fed. Just hang on for a minute and think about that – malnourished children in this country. Isn’t that, well, just a tad Dickensian? Dead right it is. And so, unfortunately, is the solution to this problem: the food bank.
Barriers such as cost and storage mean that the majority of food banks also do not serve fresh fruit or vegetables, nor do they give people instruction as to how to incorporate the food they receive into meals. People lack cooking skills but they don’t receive as much as a menu card at most food banks, they just get hand outs of non-perishables.
What’s more, when people take the rice or pasta or whatever other non-perishable home with them, some can’t even afford to heat it up.
Most of all, though, food banks signify a return to the Victorian model of the church and rich people (in this case supermarkets, happy to dispose of their waste for free) doling out food to the humble but grateful. While some are moving towards the Food Bank Plus model, which uses the food bank as a conduit for other interventions, most don’t foster a sense of community and possess the stigma of the handout.
So, let’s revive communal dining instead. Let’s have local authorities subsidising cheap cafes on-site or next door to food banks where people can get a cheap nutritious meal or simply an on-site kitchen where people can learn to prepare food as a meal. Let’s force supermarkets to manage the donation of fresh produce more efficiently, providing fresh fruit and vegetables rather than just non-perishables. Donating non-perishables is so much easier for supermarkets and hits waste targets easily, but fresh produce is where the waste really lies. This would improve nutrition and get rid of a few fat kids plugged full of carbohydrates and sugar.
More importantly, let’s use communal eating to combat problems borne of social dislocation, depression and loneliness. Intangibles such as mental turmoil are surprisingly easily targeted via simply sitting down and breaking bread.
Today there’s no political will to nationalise food poverty by centrally funding national kitchens as there was during World War I but there’s certainly a case for spending money to ensure food banks resemble community kitchens more – not just to feed, but to encourage better and affordable eating. In Peru, there is a system where the state provide basics (rice and cooking oil) and the communities provide and cook all the fresh food. The expense of doing this for the state is offset by long term savings in public health – and this is in a country where they don’t have free public healthcare. If the NHS is to pick up the long term tab for poor eating then it’s surely more cost effective to spend a bit now to reap the long term rewards.
Above all, then, let’s overcome the idea of the handout. We did this 100 years ago, why not do it again? For that to happen, the state needs to step up to the mark, as do supermarkets. Otherwise the prospect of “junk food kids” will continue its monstrous yet unassailable waddle from media panic to social reality.