A friend of mine whispered to me the other day that he is stockpiling items of food in advance of the impending ‘no deal’ Brexit food chaos. Indeed a quarter of UK voters have started taking precautions against the adverse consequences of a no-deal Brexit, including stockpiling food, toiletries and medicines. My friend said he was stockpiling tins and toilet rolls in the basement of his flat because he feared for the impact of food shortages. I remember being struck by two things in response to this revelation. Firstly, he’s broken the cardinal rule of ‘prepping’- that is, you never tell people where your stocks are. In the event of a sudden apocalyptic dystopia in West Sussex, it’ll be his house I’ll head to with my home-made harpoon gun.
But perhaps more interesting is the recent public disagreement between Retailers and the UK government as to whether there will be shortages of fresh food if there is a no-deal Brexit. Let us put aside for a moment the most common way for these debates to develop (a befuddled reactionary mouthpiece will yell ‘project fear’, after which debate will ensue as to whether this is, in fact, ‘project fear’).
Instead, let us look at the underpinning assumptions in the debates around food security. Implicit in these and agreed by most retailers appear to be the fact that we will move from a state where there are no shortages of food to a state where there are shortages of food. We read that ‘Britain will experience shortages of some fresh foods for weeks or even months if a disorderly no-deal Brexit leaves perishable produce rotting in lorries at ports. This warning came from Britain’s food and drink lobby. We have also read that the government have been holding talks with manufacturers to produce more food in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A problem with this debate is that there are already widespread food shortages in the UK. This is not because there isn’t any food on the shelves or because lorries are stuck at ports or even because there is a political impasse in parliament. Many people simply don’t have the available income to feed their families. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation found that almost 8.4 million U.K. citizens experience hunger daily or are unable to sufficiently feed themselves and their family. More than half of those suffering from food insecurity (4.7 million people) are classified as severely food insecure, sometimes going an entire day without any food at all. The idea of food shortages is nothing new for this group of people in our society.
Let’s review the evidence. According to a 2016 report by The Food Foundation based on a telephone survey of 1,000 people, over eight million Britons experienced either moderate or severe food insecurity in 2014; over four million faced severe food insecurity. A 2012 study undertaken by Netmums found that one in five mothers would regularly miss out on meals so as to be able to save their children from going hungry. In 2006, Trussell food banks operated in six local authorities, by 2009 this number had risen to 29. By 2013 Trussell was operating food banks in 251 local authorities.
In addition, over two-thirds of children in poverty in London were at risk of going hungry during the school summer holidays unless charities provided free food. One in four UK children now lives in poverty, of which three million were at risk of going hungry over the school holidays. With free school meals no longer in place, the holidays intensified hunger on an appalling scale among families living on low incomes and we now see some children returning to school malnourished, tired and unable to learn.
What makes this group of people different to Brexit food shortages are issues of social class. Issues of class politics and class identity are embedded deep within the history of British democracy and it is impossible to prise class inequality away from national politics. The recent media debates on impending food insecurity continue our inglorious tradition of political blindness to class inequalities in access to food. The very act of invisibilising widespread hunger in the debates about no-deal impacts will come as a surprise to very few who have taken a passing interest in post-Brexit political discourse. The initial focus on the working class howl that drove the EU result has given way to the prominence of the anxieties of the British middle classes who are now faced with their own impending food insecurity.
We are already in a situation where activists from one of the capital’s poorest boroughs are forced to launch a manifesto calling on the government to end summer holiday hunger. In this context, witnessing arguments where government ministers promise that we won’t have food shortages achieves the not inconsiderable status of absurdity, even in a time when absurdity has become our new national sport. In this time of absurdity it needs to be said, we already have food shortages, across the country in poor, disadvantaged, marginalised communities.
Debates on food insecurity depend largely on mobilising an endearingly quaint notion of an imaginary government whose role is to provide for and support all members of society. This position is difficult to maintain when the UK government has been accused of presiding over “significant and growing” hunger in a report by the Environmental Audit Committee, of being “silent” on food insecurity, and in very real need of appointing a “minister for hunger”. The UK government is the biggest driving force behind class-based food shortages and has been for many years.
The causes of hunger and how to end it are not a mystery. The income of less well-off families has been hit by higher housing costs and severe real-terms cuts in benefits and have been for a very long time. Two-thirds of child poverty now occurs in working families. If we are to have a conversation about food insecurity, let’s have a conversation about the implications and consequences of food insecurity for everybody. As I sit at home fashioning my harpoon gun and sketching a floor plan of my friend’s flat, it appears that the class-blindness of mainstream Brexit debate means that, three years down the line, there is still an inability to effectively lift the lid on the galling inequality that ravages the UK.