Our food supply chain is failing poorer people, as consumers and as workers

food-control-wordlePoorly paid workers and a poorly controlled food supply chain – is it any wonder that quality, choice and affordability can end up past their sell-by date?

Every few years the food supply chain hits the public consciousness: scandals like salmonella, BSE, Sudan Red and now horsemeat trigger something akin to moral panic. More or less reassuring statements are duly issued from government and the food industry alike, with a promise of tighter controls in the future.

It is not surprising that our response to any problem in the food chain is so immediate and so visceral. We need food to sustain life; it is at the heart of the way we live and putting food on the table is how we show people we love and care.

But for people in poverty the food chain and how it operates present permanent and long term problems. We know that poorer people struggle to pay for food, and report after report has warned of the tough choices poor families make about eating. Always pushed into the cheapest places, they are at risk of eating the poorest quality food.

We know too about the exponential rise in the numbers of food banks offering a vital service, but taking away the very sense of control that we all expect when we buy food. And we know from the work of Professor Tim Lang about food deserts: those parts of the country where finding decent, affordable food is impossible and getting more so – the very places where the poorest people live. Poor nutrition is rightly described as the new malnutrition of our times.

And finally, a vicious irony of ironies: it is the food chain which employs people who are so very poor. Whether it is the real scandal of forced labour which is such a disgraceful and appalling aspect of our food chain, or the low pay in agriculture, food processing, retail and food service – the ‘working poor’ are concentrated in the food industry.

In an environment where both food safety and food security now form part of our daily diet for discussion, it is time we joined up the dots and recognised that our food supply chain is not meeting the needs of poorer people, as consumers or as workers.

Julia Unwin was Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency, 2003–06. 

This is a guest post from Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). It originally appeared on the JRF blog. It is part of a series of blog posts on the issue of food poverty, which we’re gathering as part of a Church Action on Poverty project titled ‘Food, Fuel, Finance’, working with people in poverty to tackle the Poverty Premium.

3 thoughts on “Our food supply chain is failing poorer people, as consumers and as workers

  1. I know that this will make me extremely unpopular, but I was a child after the war, and we had next to nothing to live on, and wore hand me down clothes, had holes in our shoes, and lived hand to mouth. Could it be that nowadays people are just experiencing the conditions that we went through, but are just not used to deprivation and therefore demand things that, due to their circumstances they shouldn’t expect to have as a gift. The Sunday meal, if there was any left, was made to provide other meals during the week. Simple things, like not boiling a kettle full of water for one cup of coffee, but just put ‘enough’ water in it.Don’t leave a shower running, oh, and a shower is a lot cheaper to run than a bath obviously If you are lucky enough to have a phone, then ensure that it is used, if possible, at the cheapest times, which also applies to the shower, and don’t under any circumstances leave the TV on ‘standby’ as these will increase your bills There are many more ideas! Reverting to the subject of the article, a lot of the supermarkets own brand goods are just as good as the everyday items, but of course if you are near a market, that is cheaper still but then the middle man is cut out and things will be cheaper. If you are fortunate to be near a farm, then they will be cheaper still! I have gone into shops in which in the owner is present and’bargained’ with him to reduce the price of the weekly shop, although I realise that it is not English’ to do that, but it works! There are lots of ways in which nourishing meals can be made cheaply, and assuming that you have access to a computer, or your kids do, then ask the computer. It is a mine of information. Kids will have access at their school perhaps. Oh, by the way, thick cardboard was used to go over the holes in our shoes!

    • I was also a child in the war – had the toes cut out of my handed down outgrown shoes – BUT SO DID EVERYONE ELSE – and we all had food rationing

  2. I applaud loudly and agree with the sentiments you have expressed Julia. There is though something niggling me a bit. It is simply this. As I read your blog (and have read through a number of articles and posts etc in relation to Food these number of past months) the thing that niggles me some is, a possibly whispered, or even ‘projected’ (by me) whisper within, that the solution is about finding things that work for individual families. I wonder that we could do with talking more about people who are on low incomes, or whoever for that matter, may band together to create communal solutions. Whether it be allotments and sharing, large meals, seeds to a name a few.

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