'Health emergency' over food costs

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The rise in the number of people who need food banks or who cannot afford a weekly shop "has all the signs of a public health emergency", experts have warned.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), scientists and leaders of public health criticised the Government for delaying publication of research it commissioned into the rise in emergency food aid.

They argued that access to enough food "is the most basic of human needs and rights".

They said: "The number of malnutrition-related admissions to hospital in England has doubled since 2008/09.

"Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported a decrease in calories purchased and substitution with unhealthier foods, especially in families with young children.

"Against a backdrop of rising food prices, figures from the Trussell Trust show an exponential rise in the number of people being issued food bank vouchers by frontline care professionals.

"This has all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventive action.

"Because the Government has delayed the publication of research it commissioned into the rise in emergency food aid in the UK, we can only speculate that the cause is related to the rising cost of living and increasingly austere welfare reforms."

The letter was signed by David Taylor-Robinson, a health scientist at the Medical Research Council, and colleagues from the department of public health and policy at the University of Liverpool, University College London's Institute of Child Health and the public health department at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.

They said the " effects of these policies" on the health and nutritional status of people in vulnerable groups urgently needs to be monitored.

"Malnutrition in children is particularly worrying because exposures during sensitive periods can have lifelong effects, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and other adult chronic diseases.

"Access to an adequate food supply is the most basic of human needs and rights.

"We should not allow food poverty in the UK to be the next public health emergency."

A Government spokesman said: "The Government has taken action to help families with the cost of living, including increasing the tax-free personal allowance to £10,000 which will save a typical taxpayer over £700, freezing council tax for five years and freezing fuel duty.

"The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed and there is no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks.

"In fact, our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities with the universal credit making three million households better off - the majority of these from the bottom two fifths of the income scale."

Chris Mould, executive chairman of Trussell Trust, said: " This academic study throws a timely spotlight on the impact of rising living costs, static incomes and austere welfare reforms on the poorest in our communities.

"Our experience with food banks involves helping people day-in day-out who have been going hungry, one third of those we help are children.

"We're calling on the Government to set up an official inquiry because these alarming developments point towards serious trouble for the nation in the years ahead unless urgent action is taken now."

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