In a week when the Food Foundation reported that more than 7 million adults live in households which went without food in April it’s been dispiriting, albeit grimly inevitable, to see beer and curry dominate the national news agenda.
The cost of living crisis – driven by rampant food and energy price inflation – is starting to bite in a real and alarming way for huge numbers of households. New Food Foundation data showed a staggering 57% jump in the proportion of households cutting back on food or missing meals altogether in the space of just three months from January.
The charity said food banks users are increasingly requesting products that do not need cooking as families cannot afford energy bills. It called on the government to take urgent action to prevent further escalation of the crisis including increasing benefit levels in line with inflation and expanding access to free school meals and the Healthy Start programme.
The knock-on effect of stretched household budgets is already being felt by the foodservice sector. The latest contract caterer tracker from consultancy CGA (see main news) reported that soaring costs facing all businesses and consumers are part of the reason why catering sales remain well below pre-pandemic levels.
The pomp and ceremony of Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech may have jarred with the spectre of people forced to miss meals, but it did provide the government with the opportunity to set out a course of action to mitigate the unfolding crisis.
Campaigners felt it largely failed to do so: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said more support to deal with the cost of living was “conspicuous by its absence” with the government merely reiterating the £22bn in support it says it is already providing to families and promising to keep the situation under review.
There was criticism too for the lack of a Food Bill among the 38 bills announced. Soil Association head of food policy Rob Percival described its absence as “deeply disappointing”, adding that a Food Bill would represent the best vehicle for delivering the recommendations of the forthcoming national food strategy.
WWF, meanwhile, suggested the environment appeared a mere “afterthought” and accused the government of failing to set out the transformative changes needed to address the food and fuel crises, build long-term resilience, deliver on net zero and restore nature. “The gap between this government’s rhetoric and action is becoming a chasm,” said Katie White, WWF executive director of advocacy and campaigns.
There were some pledges in the speech which pleased certain groups (and divided others). UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls welcomed the move to make pavement licences permanent to allow al fresco dining as “really positive”. Nicholls also said action to simplify and update the business rates system was “encouraging” but this needed to be combined with “concrete action to reduce the overall burden of rates on hospitality”.
Stakeholders were split over plans to enable precision breeding technologies, such as gene editing, in plants and animals which the government said would “improve the sustainability, resilience, and productivity of agricultural systems”. Food and Drink Federation chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell said techniques like gene editing presented “clear opportunities to encourage innovation within food production”, however the Soil Association’s Percival criticised the plans to deregulate “unpopular gene-editing technologies”.
Elsewhere, a new Procurement Bill is set to make public procurement more accessible for new entrants such as small businesses and social enterprises.
A Brexit Freedoms Bill, meanwhile, plans a new bonfire of “burdensome” regulations (joining a litany of former ‘red tape’ bonfires that have crackled briefly before fizzling out in a puff of white smoke).
The government is betting that this year’s Queen’s Speech will “turbo charge the economy” and in so doing “address the cost of living”. But for those households already at crisis point, it looks on the surface like pretty thin gruel.