Hunger in the United Kingdom

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"Food poverty in the United Kingdom" redirects here. For poverty in the UK in general, see Poverty in the United Kingdom.

Chronic hunger has affected a sizable proportion of the UK's population throughout most of its history. The problem was largely solved with the improved economic conditions that followed World War II. However, since the lasting global inflation in the price of food that began in late 2006, and especially since the introduction of austerity in late 2010, severe hunger has once again began to affect thousands of Britons. By December 2013, according to a group of Doctors and academics writing in The British Medical Journal, hunger in the UK had reached the level of a "public health emergency".

The UK has seen several changes in prevailing attitudes to the problem of hunger and its relief. In the early 19th century, a view arose that it was counter productive to assist those suffering from hunger; rather people should be left to fend for themselves, which would help them become more self-sufficient and would also assist the free market to deliver prosperity. By the early 20th century this way of thinking had been largely displaced by the humanitarian view that Britons have a moral duty to help the hungry when they are able.

21st Century[edit]


Until about 2010, severe hunger was rarely considered a problem which afflicted people living within the borders of the United Kingdom. There were a few exceptions - a tiny minority of people might "fall through the cracks" in the otherwise relatively generous welfare system.[1] For example, in 2000 while fundraising for orphans in Bulgaria, the charity worker Paddy Henderson received a call from a local woman in Salisbury, who said: "My children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are you going to do about it?" Subsequent research led Paddy to believe that significant numbers of Britons would sometimes face periods of hunger at times of personal crisis. This led Paddy and his wife Carol to refocus their charity, The Trussell Trust, into a food bank network. The UK's first food bank went operational in 2000, running from the Henderson's garden shed. By 2004 a second food bank had opened.[2][3][4] However, this attracted little media attention at the time - before the financial crisis of 2008 even the concept of "food banks" was virtually unknown in the UK.[5] [6][7]

Like most of the rest of the world, economic conditions in the UK were adversely affected by the lasting global inflation in the price of food that began in late 2006 and especially by the 2008 financial crisis. For the first couple of years after the crisis, the rise in hunger was checked in part by the UK government's fiscal stimulus, which boosted public spending to head off the threat of depression. Yet by 2010, stimulus policies began to be replaced with an austerity programme. Low earners would increasingly see their incomes fall further due to enforced cuts in working hours and sometimes even to rates of pay. People who had suffered lasting falls to their income began to draw down savings and run out of friends of whom they were willing to ask for help, leading to increases in the numbers suffering from hunger.[6][8] As of 2012, dependence on food banks was highest in South West England and Wales where it approached 0.5% of the overall population, was relatively low in Scotland, and lowest of all in Northern Ireland.[3] Though even in Northern Ireland, demand for food banks had been rising rapidly.[9]


As of August 2012, there is no official government monitoring of hunger within Britain. The Trussell Trust reported in 2012 that it feeds tens of thousands of people each year, and that altogether in the UK there are 13 million people "below the poverty line": about 1 in 5 of the overall population.[10] A 2012 study undertook 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.[6] According to a March 2013 report, teachers in London schools said that at least five children per class turned up without having had breakfast, with 41% of teachers saying they believed the children's hunger led to symptoms such as fainting.[11] [12]

In a September 2012 report for Newsnight, economics editor Paul Mason asserted that hunger had returned to Britain as a substantial problem for the first time since the 1930s. He noted that about 43% of those needing emergency food assistance from food banks have been affected by benefit disruption - this can take various forms - for example, sometimes when there is a change of circumstance, such as a new resident coming to live at the family home, delays can arise in the payments of further benefits. Mason also reported that a reason even people in work or on full benefits are often needing emergency food is debt; in particular due to the sophisticated tactics now being used by door to door lenders, where borrowers come to think of the credit company agent as a personal friend and so will make sacrifices in order to make repayments. In October 2012, as part of the BBC documentary Britain's hidden hunger, director David Modell highlights the way in which internet based loan providers can also cause people to go hungry. Their contracts sometimes allow them to take out the entire balance from their debtors accounts, at a time of their choosing. Sometimes this happens just after a benefit payment had gone in, meaning the recipient may not have any money to buy food for at least a week.[7][13]

In December 2012 it was estimated that since the start of the year, over 200,000 Britons will have needed provisions from food banks, about double the number from 2011.[14] December also saw Trussell's chairman Chris Mould speak out against the coalition's welfare reforms, accusing the UK government of lacking empathy for those faced with poverty and hunger.[15]

In January 2013, a Tory councilor argued there is no starvation in the UK and no need for food banks, saying they enabled recipients to spend money on alcohol instead of budgeting for food, and are an insult to the billion people in the developing world who "go to bed hungry every day".[16] A spokeswoman for Trussell responded by suggesting that while low earners in the UK avoid starvation most of the time, they can face periods of severe hunger when hit by personal crisis, which for economically vulnerable people can be something as simple as a spell of cold weather, forcing them to chose between staying warm or going hungry.[17] In February, Olivier De Schutter, a senior United Nations official charged with ensuring governments honour their obligation to safeguard their citizen's Right to food, warned the UK's government against leaving too much responsibility for aiding Britain's hungry to the voluntary sector.[18] DEFRA, a government department, has commissioned research into the growing dependence on Food banks, Breakfast clubs [19] and Soup kitchens.[20][21] In October, the Red cross announced it will start providing hunger relief in Britain for the first time since World War II.[22] Also in October, an All-party parliamentary group was established to investigate and raise awareness of hunger in Britain.[23] In late 2012, a Muslim run charity Sufra was launched to raise awareness and fight food poverty in the United Kingdom.[24] In December 2013, an e-petition by hunger relief campaigner Jack Monroe led to a parliamentary debate on hunger in the UK. Also in December, a group of Doctors and academics wrote to the British Medical Journal, noting recent developments like a doubling in the number of malnutrition cases received by hospitals, and asserting that hunger in the UK had reached the level of a "public health emergency". [25][26]

In February 2014, the DEFRA report on food aid was published, finding that people generally turn to food banks only in desperation, refuting claims that food aid users commonly accept free food just so as to have extra money for other purchases. Also in February, a cross denominational group of bishops and other church leaders criticized the UK government's welfare reforms for worsening the hunger crisis. Church leaders launched the End Hunger Fast campaign, with a national fast planned for April 4 to help further raise awareness of hunger in the UK.[27][28][29]


Pre 19th century[edit]

Like the rest of the world, the UK has suffered intermittently from famine throughout most of its known history. The traditional view held that food was relatively abundant in the UK, or at least in "Merry England" with its "miraculous fertility".[30] Even as early as the 19th century this view was challenged, with medical historians such as Charles Creighton arguing that the effect of hunger in checking population growth was roughly equivalent on both Britain and continental Europe.[31] Creighton lists dozens of famines which affected Britain, though does not attempt to catalogue them comprehensively.[31] One 21st century estimate suggests Britain suffered from 95 famines during the Middle Ages.[32] Creighton does however write that sometimes a generation or more would go by between famines, and that evidence suggests that in normal times, the standard of living was higher for peasants in Britain compared with their counterparts on the continent.[31][33] Creighton's work is dated; modern osteoarchaeology tends to highlight major problems of under-nutrition easily comparable to those on the continent, and exacerbated by poor hygiene particularly in towns.[34] It was only in the late 18th century, where Britain, as the world's first country to industrialize, was apparently able to overcome the risk of famine, at least on the mainland. Hunger however continued to afflict a sizable minority of the population; those who lived on incomes well below average.[35]

19th and 20th century[edit]

A hunger memorial near Customs House in Dublin, depicting people starving due to the Great Famine, who are trying to leave Ireland via ships from the nearby quay.

Improvements in agricultural technology, transportation, and the wider economy meant that for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, severe hunger receded as a problem within the United Kingdom. An exception occurred in the 1840s. Known as the Hungry Forties, various problems affecting food production resulted in millions suffering from hunger all over Europe. In the early 1840s the UK was relatively less affected than the rest of Europe. Yet thousands of working-class people still starved to death, including in England, Scotland and Wales, in part as it had become illegal to give poor people aid.[35][36]

In Ireland, which was part of the UK at the time, the Great Famine struck in 1845, and close to a million died of hunger and related disease. From the late 1850s, the availability of food and the ability of even the poorest to pay for it generally improved. The 1920s and 30s were an exception to this. There was no famine, yet mass unemployment became a problem in several parts of the UK. While the New Poor Law had been relaxed, workhouses were still in existence, and without a well paying job, it was often difficult for working-class people to feed themselves and their families. The UK saw a number of hunger marches in the 1920s and 30s, with the biggest being the National Hunger March of 1932 and perhaps the most famous being the Jarrow crusade. From the outbreak of WWII, unemployment swiftly vanished, and remained very low in the UK for decades afterwards. Food was often limited during the war and the first few years after, but a rationing system generally ensured no individual would overly suffer from hunger. With a relatively generous and inclusive Welfare state established after the war, and with food prices often falling in real terms, hunger within the UK was no longer a pressing problem for the second half of the 20th century.[35]

Attitudes towards hunger relief[edit]

Views against hunger relief which arose first in Britain had spread all over the world due to the UK's cultural dominance in the 19th century. Even as late as WWI, American propaganda posters in favor of food aid would sometimes refute these earlier views.

A popular view within the UK is that Britons are relatively generous with regards to helping others alleviate poverty and hunger. There are numerous surveys that suggest this is at least partially true, but it was not always the case. In the 19th century, the UK became the world's first country where a view became dominant that it is best to leave the hungry to fend for themselves. Up until the late 18th century, the attitude towards hunger was similar to that found else where: that hunger is something which affluent people should seek to relieve when they have the means available, but also that famine is not something that societies can be expected to avoid or overcome. Within Christendom, famines were sometimes even seen as divine punishments. Towards the end of the 18th century, improvements in technology, the economy and bureaucratic procedures were laying the foundation for what would eventually emerge as the nation state. Some, such as prime minister Lord Pitt, took the view that the State should use its growing power to intervene against hunger.[37] Others, such as liberal economists like Adam Smith took the view that government intervention would be counter productive; that in the long run only the free market could produce sustained plenty for all. Other very different but allied views for opposing hunger relief which arose in the late 18th century included Malthus's position that starvation was the only reliable way to check run away population growth, and Townsend's view that hunger was a useful motivational condition, which taught "decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse." [35] The growing movement against hunger relief was supported even by some evangelical Christians, who had come to view hunger as evidence of punishment for sin, with the hungry best left to redeem themselves through their own hard work. Until the early 1830s, Lord Pitt and others who favored government intervention largely retained control over policy, even if they had to compromise with those who opposed generous relief measures.[35][36]

But in 1834, most forms of aid to the poor were abolished, and this was done with almost universal support from the intellectual classes, even from the progressive wing. Karl Polanyi writes that the reason for the broad support was that the leading form of aid in the early 19th century, the Speenhamland system had become detested even by the working class themselves. Speehamland involved supplementary payments to top up wages. Previously, levels of pay were often linked to the quality of the workman's work. With Speehamland, workers would receive a guaranteed amount; it would sometimes vary, but only with the price of food. With the guaranteed payment, workers would usually find themselves dropping their standards, even if they had previously taken great pride in their workmanship. In some areas, only a small number of the very best workers were able to avoid applying for Speehamland assistance. A saying arose among the working class that "Once on the rates, always on the rates",[36] and the system became increasingly disliked as it was blamed for causing dependency, discouraging good work and was widely perceived to be more helpful to land owners than to workers. For this reason, by the 1830s even progressive intellectuals and opinion formers had switched their views in favour of free market thinking. Polyanyi records that apart from a few aristocrats whose continued support of Speehamland could be dismissed as self-interested (the system helped workers pay high prices for food from the agricultural lands they controlled), the only well known Briton to remain prominently opposed to the free market in the early 1830s was the socialist Robert Owen. In 1832, free market supporters seized political power, and two years later Speehamland was abolished with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Other forms of aid for the poor, even soup kitchens and hand outs of food from concerned nobles and clerics, were made illegal. With a few exceptions, the only legally available form of aid was the workhouse. Workhouses became far more common after 1834, and conditions were made much more harsh. The principle of "Less eligibility" was established; it held that less food should be available to inmates than they could get outside even with the lowest paid available jobs, and in practice this sometimes meant they were starved.[36]

James Vernon, in his Hunger: A Modern History (2007), wrote that while the idea that hunger relief is undesirable first became prominent in Britain, it was also here that the view was first successfully challenged. The 1834 New Poor Law became unpopular with the working class as soon as it came into force, and to a degree they formed an alliance with some of the paternalistic members of the upper class, against the free market favoring middle classes. From as early as 1834, The Times labelled the The New Poor Law the "starvation law", and they ran frequent articles over the following years showing the number of British people who starved to death because of it (which happened both in the workhouses themselves and outside, because workhouses had such a dark reputation that many would prefer either to become prostitutes or to starve to death rather than enter one). Vernon writes that by the 1840s, new journalistic techniques were beginning to make emotive appeals to readers which drove home the pain experienced by those suffering from severe hunger. The new journalism began to dispel the older late 18th-century view that hunger is a sign of moral failing, instead convincing the public of sufferers "moral innocence as victims of forces beyond their control".[35] This in part led to the resurgence of the view that society should try to assist those suffering from hunger. Whereas older hunger relief had generally been undertook locally and on a personal level, now new efforts began to arise to tackle hunger on a national and international scale. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that this new view became dominant - the free market view remained ascendant among Britain's governing classes for most of the 19th century, resulting in part in the refusal to send adequate food aid to mitigate the Great famine in Ireland and to famines in India.[35] Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote, "I don't think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering."[38][39] On the other hand, free market supporters had campaigned against the Corn Laws - measures which protected mostly upper class landlords against competition from cheaper foreign imports, but which made food more expensive, contributing to the famine in Ireland. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, but this was too late to make much difference to the famine, in part as its abolition did not become fully effective for several years.[40][41] By the early 20th century, the stigma of hunger had been almost entirely dispelled. The public had become much more sympathetic to those suffering from the condition, in part due to the high impact journalism of people like Vaughan Nash, Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford. In 1905, the UK saw its first hunger march, and also in the early 20th century people even began to deliberately make themselves hungery in order to attract attention to their political causes, such as early suffragettes who pioneered the practice of hunger strikes within the UK.[35]

In August 2012, Marxist writer Richard Seymour wrote that while it never became mainstream, the old 18th-century view that the hungry are morally responsible for their plight returned to influence in the US during the early 1980s, and that in the UK it influenced the policy of the Conservative - Liberal coalition from 2010.[42]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Generous in comparison with global averages, though not with northern Europe.
  2. ^ Kate Kellaway (2012-12-22). "The food banks keeping families from going hungry this Christmas". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-01-13. 
  3. ^ a b "Where in the UK do people rely most heavily on food banks?". The Guardian. 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2012-10-19. 
  4. ^ The Trussell Trust: How we started
  5. ^ Frazer Maude, Sky News (2012-04-21). "One Food Bank Opening In UK Every Four Days". Yahoo!. Retrieved 2012-08-23. 
  6. ^ a b c Charlie Cooper (2012-04-06). "Look back in hunger: Britain's silent, scandalous epidemic". The Independent. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  7. ^ a b Paul Mason (2012-09-04). "The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain". BBC. Retrieved 2012-09-08. 
  8. ^ Rowenna Davis (2012-05-12). "The rise and rise of the food bank". New Statesman. Retrieved 2012-06-18. 
  9. ^ Donna Deeney (2012-10-10). "Demand for food bank handouts at an all-time high". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-10-19. 
  10. ^ "‘Don’t ignore the hunger on our doorstep’ UK foodbank charity warns ahead of Olympic Hunger Summit". The Trussell trust. 2012-08-09. Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  11. ^ "Most London teachers answering survey have fed hungry pupils at own expense". The Guardian. 2012-12-18. Retrieved 2013-01-13. 
  12. ^ Fiona Twycross (2013-04-02). "A Zero Hunger City – Tackling food poverty in London". London Assembly. Retrieved 2013-03-25. 
  13. ^ David Model (2012-10-30). "Britain's hidden hunger". BBC. Retrieved 2012-11-04. 
  14. ^ Hayden Smith (2012-12-05). "Desperate people facing 20-mile hike for food". Metro. Retrieved 2012-12-07. 
  15. ^ Medhi Hassan (2012-12-30). "Trussell Trust Food Bank Boss Chris Mould Says Ministers Lack Empathy With The Poor". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2013-01-13. 
  16. ^ Gavin Aitchison (2013-01-03). "Councillor in attack on food bank". York Press. Retrieved 2013-01-03. 
  17. ^ Charlie Cooper (2013-01-12). "Life on benefits: The starving of the 11 million". The Independent. Retrieved 2013-01-03. 
  18. ^ Jessica Elgot (2013-02-19). "Food Poverty: UN Special Rapporteur Finds Austerity, Food Banks And Working Poor In UK 'Extremely Worrying'". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2013-02-24. 
  19. ^ In the context, a breakfast club is usually an arrangement for providing children with their morning meal before class. The often use school premises and can be funded by local charity. Sometimes they are highly informal, with teachers paying for the food out of their own pocket, as when children's parents can't afford to give them breakfast, it can severely affect the childs ability to concentrate on lessons. ( See this Guardian article .)
  20. ^ Patrick Butler (Guardian society editor) and Olivier De Schutter (2013-03-02). "Food banks can only plug the holes in social safety nets". Gulf News. Retrieved 2013-03-03. 
  21. ^ Patrick Butler (2013-02-24). "Food banks surge leads to Defra inquiry". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
  22. ^ CHARLOTTE MCDONALD-GIBSON (2013-10-11). "Exclusive: Red Cross launches emergency food aid plan for UK’s hungry". The Independent. Retrieved 2013-10-25. 
  23. ^ Patrick Butler (2013-11-28). "Food poverty: MPs call for 'delayed' food banks report to be published". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ Charlie Cooper (2013-12-03). "Food poverty in UK has reached level of 'public health emergency', warn experts". The Independent. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  26. ^ Jack Monroe (2013-12-18). "Let's debate our need for food banks – a national disgrace". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  27. ^ Elizabeth Dowler , Hannah Lambie-Mumford, Monae Verbeke , Eric Jensen and Daniel Crossley (February 2014). "Household Food Security in the UK: A Review of Food Aid". Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 2014-02-20. 
  28. ^ Patrick Butler (2014-02-20). "Families turn to food banks as last resort 'not because they are free'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-02-20. 
  29. ^ Helen Warrell and Jim Pickard (2014-02-20). "Clergy preach to Cameron on benefit reform" ((registration required)). Financial Times. Retrieved 2014-02-20. 
  30. ^ Quote is a translation from Piers Ploughman, there are many similar boast in early English literature, see for an example Creighton (1891)
  31. ^ a b c Charles Creighton (1891 (republished 2010)). "Chapt. 1". History of Epidemics in Britain. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 114494760X.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  32. ^ James Bartholomew (2012-08-08). "Poor studies will always be with us". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-10-08. 
  33. ^ In particular, Creighton says historical evidence suggests there was very little occurrence of Ergotism in Britain. (Ergotism being associated with poor diet, in particular having to eat black bread, which is made with Rye.)
  34. ^ R. Fleming, Britain After Rome (2010)
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h James Vernon (2007). "Chpts. 1-3". Hunger: A Modern History. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674026780. 
  36. ^ a b c d Karl Polanyi (2002). "Chpts 1-12, esp chpt 8". The Great Transformation. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-5643-1. 
  37. ^ Although it notable that even Pitt once refused to send desperately needed food supplies to France, which might have forestalled the French revolution - biographers explain this as relating to the hostility towards France he inherited from his father.
  38. ^ James L. Richardson, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics, 2001, Lynne Rienner Publishers, ISBN 1-55587-915-2
  39. ^ Cormac Ó Gráda (1995). "section: Ideology and relief in Chpt. 2". The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521557870. 
  40. ^ George Miller. On Fairness and Efficiency. The Policy Press, 2000. ISBN 978-1-86134-221-8 p.344
  41. ^ Christine Kinealy. A Death-Dealing Famine:The Great Hunger in Ireland. Pluto Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-7453-1074-9. p. 59
  42. ^ Richard Seymour (2012-08-23). "How food insecurity keeps the workforce cowed". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-10-09. 

External links[edit]