My county of Suffolk, with its beautiful beach destinations and idyllic rural villages, is a wonderful place to live but is all too often lazily caricatured as somewhere with few issues, least of all poverty and hunger.
The reality is very different.
In May of this year, an End Child Poverty report showed that an estimated 50,000 Suffolk children were living in poverty. Our local food banks repeatedly warn of ever-growing demand. And while deprivation is largely rooted in towns like Ipswich and Lowestoft, it is no less pernicious in our rural communities which have seen public services slashed and isolation grow.
This is why I thought it was crucially important that we brought the Co-operative Party’s campaign on Food Justice to Suffolk County Council.
I had five key asks:
- Nominate a Cabinet Member with responsibility for delivering food justice in Suffolk;
- Increase the take up of Free Schools Meals;
- Urge the government to enshrine its existing commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 into domestic legislation;
- Ask our Scrutiny Committee to investigate the extent and causes of hunger in Suffolk and make recommendations about what can be done to tackle it;
- Work with our District and Borough Councils and other partner organisations to develop and implement a Food Justice Action Plan which would look to eliminate food poverty in Suffolk.
As is often the case when you put forward a motion as an opposition party, you have to be prepared to accept amendments from the ruling administration in order to secure agreement. In this instance, the Conservatives wanted to highlight the additional funding given to food banks and the Holiday and Activity Programme in Suffolk, as well as to welcome the government’s extension of the Free School Meal programme over the summer holidays.
Given that all of my proposals were left untouched, these did not feel like unreasonable requests. With the Tories filling 50 out of the 75 council seats, it would have been both churlish and counterintuitive to reject a genuine, albeit rare, attempt to secure cross-party support.
However, I welcomed this additional support with a caveat. While recognising the Trussell Trust, FIND and many other food banks for their unwavering support of our communities, I do not believe we should have a society where food bank usage is increasingly prevalent.
And while I welcomed Boris Johnson’s belated u-turn on extending Free School Meals, it frankly would have been unedifying for any government to have left children to go hungry in these exceptionally difficult times. Child hunger does not stop for the summer holidays.
During my speech, I urged the council to work in partnership with food producers and retailers. The National Farmers’ Union already does important work to combat food poverty, as does the East of England Co-op. Having their expertise around the table is crucial in enabling Suffolk to build resilient local supply chains and keep investment in our local economy. Given our county’s proud agricultural heritage, it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t.
I also highlighted the important work that Sustainable Food Places do to promote local food partnerships. These partnerships bring together a variety of stakeholders that help drive innovation and best practice in their local area. It would certainly be worth seeing how we could produce a similar model here in Suffolk.
We live in the sixth-richest nation in the world. No one, least of all children, should be going hungry. But while the UK is committed to eradicating hunger by 2030, the injustice of food poverty is growing, not abating.
As reported by the Food Foundation in 2016, more than 8 million people in our country struggle to put enough food on the table and nearly 5 million people regularly go an entire day without eating. In 2018-19, The Trussell Trust, the largest UK food bank network, provided 1.6 million packages of emergency food. The figure was 41,000 a decade before. Around 10 per cent of the NHS budget goes on treating Type 2 Diabetes.
The true long-term extent of the coronavirus pandemic on jobs and livelihoods is not yet known, but it has already put major pressure on the finances of local families. The Trussell Trust has reported that food banks nationally saw an 89 per cent increase in demand during April 2020, and the number of families with children receiving emergency food parcels almost doubled compared to last year.
It is why the commitments Suffolk County Council has now made to tackling food poverty is so vital.
This motion may not bring about an immediate change, but it is a significant step forward in fighting the root causes of poverty and food hunger for people in Suffolk.