See No Evil: Turning the blind eye to hunger in the UK

In the West, food insecurity and hunger are seen as other peoples’ problems. Parents chide their children for not clearing their plates, and lecture them about starving youth in distant, non-Western countries. When holidays like Christmas roll around, schools and workplaces hold fundraisers to provide villages or camps with food supplies for the next few months, congratulating themselves for helping someone somewhere in the Global South. This is not to suggest that there are not people outside of the West going hungry; currently the UN estimates over 800 million people worldwide are currently malnourished, with roughly ⅔ of these people living in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. Since 2015, the number of people at risk of food security has been increasing, for the first time in decades (UN). However, in countries like the UK, concern seems to be more for the issue of obesity, as there is a notion that hunger does not, or cannot, occur in the “developed world.”

This notion is false.

In January 2020, 1.4 million children in the English state school system qualified for free school meals. Since the pandemic started, British charity Food Foundation estimated that up to another 900,000 children now are in need of them (BBC). Starting in March 2020, the UK government provided food vouchers to families with children who qualified for free school meals over the first lockdown period, initially supposed to end when the school term ended. This was extended over the summer into the new school year after national outrage and campaigning, spearheaded by English footballer Marcus Rashford, who himself relied on free school meals as a child. However, in October, a motion to extend this scheme over the winter holidays failed to be passed in parliament. This decision was primarily due to the expected costs, with the government arguing that the addition of an extra £20 per week since April in Universal Credit—a government issued payment to help with living costs—was already a generous and effective solution to the problem (BBC). After renewed public backlash and further campaigning by Marcus Rashford and British food distribution charity FareShare UK, the UK government will now spend an estimated £400m to provide extra funding to local authorities for the supply of meals over the winter. Additionally, it announced it will run the school meal vouchers scheme over the Easter, summer and winter holidays in 2021 as well (BBC). 

While this comes as a victory, it should have never been a fight in the first place. 

The government’s reluctance to further fund food for children due to the costs is seen as an act of hypocrisy by many, myself included. To me, it is astounding that the decision to feed children is even debatable, as they are particularly vulnerable and unable to take full control of their lives, making them dependent on others. It does not matter that they are “someone else’s children”. What matters is they are children, and they are going hungry, and we should be doing everything possible to stop this. 

Between the 3rd and 31st August 2020, the government ran the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which provided 50% off of the cost of meals up to £10 in restaurants and takeaways across the UK, and reimbursed businesses the other 50% of the cost to reinvigorate the hospitality industry and economy (The Guardian). While successful in driving demand in the industry, the campaign also cost over £520m, and contributed to the national rise in coronavirus cases, as it encouraged people to go out in public and subsequently interact with others (The Guardian). Many in the UK are angry that the government has spent this much on a short-term economic scheme, and yet is reluctant to spend less on an essential food scheme designed to benefit children for a whole year. Furthermore, up until October, England was the only region in the UK that initially chose not to extend their food voucher scheme over the winter, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all choosing to do so (BBC).

This brings us back to the underlying issue: hunger is not viewed as a priority in England and the UK. 

The saying “see no evil” rings true in the UK when it comes to hunger. The majority of the population will never experience it, therefore most people have little interest or awareness about it, with many denying its existence. The reality is, hunger is everywhere. I come from the South East of England, one of the most affluent areas in the UK, from Tunbridge Wells: nationally known for being upper middle class, and a bit snobbish. It shocks most people to discover that roughly one in ten people in and around my town rely on the local food bank, which expects to see an increase between 150 to 200% of people using their services this winter in comparison to previous years (The Independent). But like the wider country, the majority of the town do not live with, see, or talk about hunger, and either turn a blind eye or stay silent when they do witness it. The population is raised with the idea that the UK is an amazing, powerful country, standing above the rest. There’s a “Great” in “Great Britain” for a reason. And in great places, no one goes hungry. We grow up thinking that hunger is only experienced by people in “less great countries”, like former British colonies. If you are going hungry in this great country, it is your own fault and so it is acceptable for others to ignore your problem.

However, the Coronavirus has made it impossible to continue ignoring this issue, it has helped to demonstrate and expose the flaws in the system. You cannot claim that people relying on the system got to that point solely through their own individual actions, when many of them rely on the system due to a global pandemic, which is out of their control.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a national emphasis on unity, cooperation and support for one another, with people reaching out and connecting with each other through Zoom calls and Netflix parties. There has been an uncharacteristically emotional outpour of support for essential workers, demonstrated by the banging of pots and pans in the street every Thursday during the lockdown. The government calls on its people to work together to get through this pandemic. It’s almost abnormal how much people across the nations of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England suddenly seem to care about each other, in rather unbritish public displays of affection and emotion. It has also raised more questions about the future of the UK; many people feel that the national governments have handled the pandemic better than the central government in London, with Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism surging since March. The decision by all the national governments aside from England to continue their food voucher schemes is seen as one example of this. The effectiveness and popularity of their decisions strengthens arguments made by independence movements for the redistribution of power to the individual nations, as their national governments can better manage issues such as food insecurity, rather than having to rely on a distant and at times out of touch central government. The pandemic has further exposed not only the cracks in the system but in the Union as well, posing a new question: should they even try to be repaired?

With the announcement of the Pfizer vaccine, people are asking, “when will we get back to normal?”. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that we cannot go back to normal. “Normal” still means there are people going hungry across the country. “Normal” is people still relying on food banks to survive. “Normal” is children relying on schools for their only guaranteed meal of the day. If we go back to “normal”, do we go back to focusing solely on ourselves, and rejecting all the current sentiments about standing strong together? Do we go back to leaving those people out of sight, and therefore out of mind? If the pandemic passes, does the need for helping one another pass as well?

Coronavirus has finally forced the blind eye to see hunger in the UK, and England in particular. It is a wake up call to the population, loud like the banging pots and pans for the NHS, that hunger and child poverty are not just encountered in geography classes and on maps of the other side of the world. Hunger is in every village, town and city across this rainy island. With a potential end to this pandemic in sight, we cannot go back to the way things were. We cannot pick and choose when to be united with and for each other, even though the government may suggest otherwise. People spoke up in response to the government’s decisions over school dinners during the pandemic; what we need now is for people to keep speaking up when the Corona crisis is over. The nation’s attention has been drawn to hunger, this attention must now be maintained. The UK’s eye should only turn away when there is nothing left for it to see, in this case, when people on these islands are no longer going hungry. This will not happen overnight: it will take time, noise, effort and action against the government and the system to address the causes of hunger and to strengthen and protect the support systems currently in place. This change will not happen by the time this pandemic has finished. It will not happen by the time I complete my college education, unless there is an unlikely sudden, dramatic revolution. Yet, I hope change happens, or at least begins, during my lifetime. Change is needed, and now is the perfect time to start.

The blind eye is being forced to see, and forced to process and act on what it sees. As schools and offices begin to reopen, people are turning their fundraisers and collection boxes to local charities, whilst food banks and food sharing charities raise their voices in their sudden national spotlight. Statistics in the news remind parents that children are not only starving abroad. The challenge now is to keep on seeing until there is nothing left to see. We can no longer choose to close our eyes and see no evil.

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