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Blog 6: Help a hungry child

Christmas fund-raiser ‘Help a Hungry Child’ in the Evening Standard and the Independent

Note: apologies for lack of entries in my blog for a couple of months. This was due to family health problems, happily resolved now.

Over Christmas the Independent and the Evening Standard ran a joint fund-raising campaign called ‘Help a Hungry Child’ to raise money primarily for the Felix Project, a charity set up in 2016 in London to collect surplus food from the food industry and redistribute it to other food charities ( Readers of the two newspapers were urged to donate cash so that new forms of reaching the food poor could be set up via ‘market-stalls’ in primary schools in disadvantaged areas of London.

This blog looks not only at the ‘messages’ given in the articles written by journalist, but also considers some of the comments by readers.

The campaign’s articles published from late November up to Christmas made some useful and important points about food poverty, particularly among children:

  • The numbers of people living with food poverty is staggering – according to the Independent on 28th November it is said to be in the region of 8m nationally.
  • Many children in London live in poverty and the figure is rising. As a result of this, many go to school without breakfast and find it hard to concentrate in lessons so the Independent also raised funds for the Magic Breakfast charity (
  • A survey conducted by Yougov and organised by Kelloggs in November2017 found that a large number of parents wished they could give their children more food or food which was more nutritious but for them good quality food is often unaffordable. They are often forced to provide the cheapest food, as a result of which all household members suffer and some become obese, leading to heart disease, diabetes and poor mental health
  • In recent years, some people have been admitted to hospital with clinical states of malnutrition, and there are also signs of stunted growth in children, as well as general ill-health. Rickets has again become visible in the way it was in Victorian times, while some GPs are planning to prescribe not medicine but food to their patients

All in all, then, a dismal picture of poverty and especially food poverty in 21st century UK.

The other set of arguments laid out was that there is a huge amount of food which is being wasted by food retailers (including wholesalers and supermarkets) and by consumers.  This could be used by the food poor rather than being put into landfill, which is bad for the environment.  As the CEO of the Felix Project stated: ‘We are scarcely making a dent in the food surplus mountain in Britain. It is this crazy mismatch with 223,000 tonnes of edible food going to landfill or anaerobic digestion plants and demand (70,000 London children going to school hungry and 500,000 Londoners living in real poverty) that caused us to start the Felix Project in the first place’ (Evening Standard, 12.01/18).

So how successful was it?

In its own terms, it was very successful. It was announced on Jan 12th 2018 that the campaign had raised over £1m with contributions coming not only from readers but also from corporations, food retailers (in cash and kind) and ‘famous names’ (actors, models, performers). It received a lot of publicity and was widely endorsed, including by politicians of all of the three main political parties (Justine Greening, Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable).

Did this campaign also enlighten people about food poverty? A reading of the articles published reveals a clear underlying message that if food surplus and food poverty can be brought together, there is a ‘win-win’ situation with a solution to both problems. Such an argument tends to ignore the reasons why people are in food poverty in the first place, and why, as much research has shown, such forms of food aid are less desirable than people being able to afford to buy and choose their food like anyone else.

What about the views of readers of these two newspapers? The articles in the Independent and the Evening Standard between 28th November and the 25th December attracted very large numbers of comments which tended to fall into several categories:

  1. Blaming victims and others
  • ‘Blame the victim’: those suffering from food poverty did not know how to budget wisely, spending their money on alcohol and cigarettes, drugs and tattoos, nor did they know what to do with fresh food such as vegetables. Many food bank clients had cars and iphones, the implication being that they were not really poor
  • Blame the immigrants, refugees and those from ethnic minorities: some of the discussions rapidly degenerated into racist and Islamophobic abuse (see Independent 28/11/17)

2.  But others made points about the underlying causes of food poverty and criticised the government and its policies, especially around benefits (with particular mention of sanctions and the introduction of the deeply unpopular Universal Credit):

  • ‘You know that people are waiting for at least 6 weeks with no money coming in while they wait for Universal Credit to start. Of whom more than half are in work’ (Wings, Independent, 29/11/17)
  • ‘It really says a lot about our society that the government seems to have decided long ago that people at the bottom are expendable.’ (khitb77, Independent 18/12/17)

Others mentioned low wages:

  • In my work I’ve met loads of people struggling on low wages and none of them acts as you [another commentator] suggest they do. It’s much easier to blame the fecklessness of parents as then we don’t have to tackle the true causes of poverty – the simple fact that we don’t pay people enough to live on’ (Jump, Independent 18/12/17)
  • ‘I am slightly stunned that people on these threads don’t understand the genuine issues that people face. Many of these parents are on zero hours contracts…no guarantee of work.’ (Patti P, Independent 18/12/17)

And the cost of living in relation to low wages:

  • ‘Housing costs around £40 after (with) housing benefit, taxes (tax credits) are more than cancelled out by benefits, bus fares if you need a bus £20 per week, heating and fuel £30, food £50, total £170. Leaves a bunch of money after minimum wage of £300 per week’ (hodgey, Independent 18/12/17).

3.  Only a very few commentators questioned the very ethos of a fund-raising campaign such as this, with a swipe at the idea that charity can absolve both government and the wealthy of further responsibility toward the poor:

‘Jacob-Rees-Mogg will be so pleased. He can now insist that charities can afford to support ALL poor people, so the government need not, as he insisted they shouldn’t, give the poor anything.’ (Rosal, Independent, 22/12/17).

‘Of course the rich can now absolve themselves of any responsibility by the very existence of this project. The pitchforks are coming.’ (Slavery by consent, Independent 18/12/17).