Zooming in on ‘Food poverty’

By Brídín Carroll

Food poverty has been identified by TRANSMANGO as a key area of concern for food and nutrition security (FNS) in Europe (see D5.2). But what exactly is ‘food poverty’? 

Food poverty is defined as existing when one cannot access or avail of a safe and healthy diet, often because of financial restrictions. A key element of food poverty is uncertainty of supply and understandings of this concept therefore also tend to incorporate considerations of social or cultural norms, standards, customs or acceptability with regard to food (Nikolic et al, 2014; Dowler and O’Connor, 2012; Burns et al, 2010; Balanda et al, 2008; Dowler et al, 2007).

The number of those who are suffering from or at risk of food poverty is high, even in affluent countries where there is obviously an abundance of food. This is illustrated by the fact that in the EU27 countries the 9% of the population cannot afford a meal with meat, which is one of four markers of food poverty (Carney and Maítre, 2012). In addition, forty-three million citizens (approximately 8%) of the European Union are thought to be at risk of food poverty (Riches, 2011).

Undernourishment which results from food poverty leads to the growth of diet-related illnesses and diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, within affected populations. And just as poverty can lead to poor health, so too can poor health perpetuate food poverty when healthy food is even less accessible due to limitations on a person’s capacity to earn a decent wage, or limitations on  mobility (Farrell et al, 2008).

It is clear that there are certain groups who are especially vulnerable to food poverty.  Low income households are most at risk despite spending a higher share of their total budget on food -a phenomenon described by ‘Engel’s Law’. Women and children also face a higher risk and this latter group are more likely to suffer from developmental problems and related health conditions later in life as a result.

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There have been some attempts to address the issue of food poverty through policy: in the UK, the Food Poverty (Eradication) Bill was enacted in 2001; the European Commission published a white paper in 2007 highlighting the need to make healthy options affordable; and the UN ratified the right to food into international law. However, increasing rates of food poverty have been driven by a neoliberal political approach which devolves responsibility for FNS and fails to recognise the role of the ‘free’ market in creating the conditions which allow food poverty to prevail. In addition, most political interventions have tended to frame food poverty as a consumer-centred issue. They emphasise ‘self-help’ initiatives to increase consumer awareness, understanding and skills around healthy eating (Dowler et al, 2007).

But ultimately, food poverty can be best addressed by focusing on supply side accessibility and specifically on policies which make healthy food more affordable and financially accessible. Policies which ensure adequate infrastructural accessibility of retail outlets which sell healthy foods for those who are socio-economically disadvantaged are also very important in tackling food poverty.

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