How to talk about food poverty

£1.2 billion of food wasted in UK every year and 3 items per household per week are binned

A produce vendor arranges carrots as he waits for customers at a market in Islamabad, Pakistan on January 22. AP

It is a common moan that there is a gulf between politicians and real life. In Britain people talk about London’s “Westminster village,” as if politicians, civil servants and political journalists live in a bubble disconnected from 68 million British citizens.

In the US, people sneer about “inside the beltway” - the ring road around Washington DC. Listening to our current Conservative party drama in Britain concerning British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or the plotting against US President Joe Biden in Congress, you can see why the gap between politicians and citizens can seem like a gulf.

In Britain a well known chef, Jack Monroe, points out that this gulf includes statistics beloved by political experts – Gross Domestic Product, inflation and so on – which she suggests are not the numbers which matter most to many individuals. She’s right. Monroe campaigns on hunger, healthy eating and poverty and is outraged by how inflation is calculated in Britain. It is not because the figures are wrong, but because what economists measure has often little to do with the spending choices that less well-off people must make.

US President Joe Biden puts a bag of carrots into a box at Philabundance, a hunger relief organisation in Philadelphia, US, on January 16. Reuters

The UK government’s “consumer price index” (CPI) noted a 5.4 per cent increase in prices in December, the highest level for nearly 30 years. But Monroe points out that the CPI is calculated on a collection of 700 different goods, from a leg of lamb to bedroom furniture and television sets. She calls this “darkly comical” because poorer people cannot afford new furniture, electrical goods, or large pieces of expensive meat, especially since the prices of the things they do need to buy have shot up.

For years Monroe collected the prices of cheaper supermarket food, including stock cubes, budget flour, rice and pasta. She found that some items in the low budget shopping basket have increased by more than 100 per cent. Other low-budget ranges have been discontinued altogether. Monroe is now compiling, with other volunteers, activists and experts, a new “price index” to reflect this reality because – she argues – traditional measures of inflation do not get to the heart of food poverty.

All this comes as a data-based report by the organisation Censuswide put figures on UK food waste. They calculate that 76 million food items are thrown away every week in Britain. That’s the equivalent of three items every week for every British household, and it adds up to more than a billion pounds of British food waste per year.

A staff member at Morrisons holding up a bottle of its own brand milk. The supermarket chain is to scrap "use by" dates on most of its milk in a bid to reduce food waste. From the end of January, the retailer will instead place "best before" dates on 90 per cent of its own-brand milk and will encourage customers to use a sniff test to check quality. PA

The waste includes more than 900 million potatoes, 700 million tomatoes and about the same number of carrots per year. Most consumers say they feel guilty about waste but many said it was because they did not know what to cook and did not know enough recipes. To throw one further statistic in the mix, a friend showed me a British website to find the addresses of food banks nearby by entering a postcode. I was surprised to find there are now as many as five food banks in my neighbourhood, some associated with churches, others independent, in an area where statistically average weekly pay is above the UK national average.

This is where the disconnection between statistics, “averages” and the daily experience of many of us begins to bite. It is also where politics and government policies really matter. Most politicians – at least the ones I know personally – want to do the best for people. And politicians can make a difference. But the ones who shout loudest and posture most often could help more if they spent less time trying to deflect from political scandals and more time trying to figure what to do for those who, as the campaigner’s catch-phrase goes, “have to choose between heating and eating” this winter.

Sell-by dates are a guide, not an instruction

Monroe’s campaign to produce inflation figures that reflect the real lives of poorer people is a start. Government action on waste and better education in schools on cooking healthy food would also help. Millions of us put perfectly edible food in the bin as a result of well-intentioned labelling with “use by” dates.

When I was a post-graduate at university, living on a low budget in a large block of student accommodation, I spotted my neighbour, a PhD biology student, pulling a plastic bag of carrots discarded in our communal bin. He peeled the carrots and put them in a stew. When I seemed shocked he explained that the carrots looked and smelled fine, and our grandmothers would have known they were perfectly edible. He was right. I have never forgotten that thrifty lesson.

There is an open goal for governments round the world to show they are in touch with the real lives of real people by endorsing this common sense approach, reminding us “sell-by” dates are a guide, not an instruction, and by working with supermarkets to reduce waste.

The politicians I know want to bridge the gap of understanding with the public. They could start by thinking less about statistics which matter for macro-economic theories and more about the numbers to guide the micro-decisions we all have to take.

Published: January 25, 2022, 4:00 AM