The Poetry Society, Oxfam, and End Hunger UK have developed an anthology of poetry written to address the mounting issue of food poverty in the UK.
Nine poems, written by young people from across the UK, were submitted to a competition that formed a part of End Hunger UK’s touring of the Behind Closed Doors exhibition, which recently opened in Cardiff.
The poetry found in this collection could not be more timely as UK food insecurity, marked by the use of emergency food aid, has increased dramatically over the last decade.
According to End Hunger UK, the increasing dependency of our many of our population on food banks is indicative of a “fundamental societal failure” to ensure that people, living in one of the world’s most wealthy countries, have the ability to feed themselves and their families.
Responding to the explosion in food bank use, and the factors that have caused it (low salaries, insecure jobs, a rising cost of living, and an inadequate benefits system), the poets in this collection lay their experiences of food poverty bare.
In the poem, “Breadlines”, Matt Sowerby dissects The Lord’s Prayer, casting aside every line but one; “Give us this day our daily bread,” he writes, “So said the underfed / Give us it because the baby’s half-dead.”
A few stanzas later, he asserts “This is a food fight / This here is the Hunger Games”, alluding to the Suzanne Collins trilogy of books (and later films) in which children and young people are brutally killed for the entertainment of a shadowy elite.
There is no metaphor here and the message is clear. Those living in such circumstances cannot afford to pray for anything else when that which they need most desperately is simply their next meal while onlookers from higher socio-economic strata do nothing but observe their plight.
Indeed, across the collection, there are few instances of poetic extravagances. Instead, the poets often focus on the real, visceral imagery of empty plates and empty stomachs, of food banks and the desperate search for work.
That said, one of the most striking metaphors comes in the very first poem, “The Stain on London’s Dress” by Sophie Thynne. It is an angry, rambling tirade of enjambment, the flowing lines forming a stream of consciousness to highlight the growing gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (in a manner that is similar to the great American poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti), whereby the image of London by those who live and thrive in the city is compared to that of a beautiful piece of clothing and those in poverty in the UK capital represent a stain that, try as we might, we are collectively becoming less and less able to ignore.
Presented together, the collection questions what it means to be human in a society in which normal daily routines of eating and sharing food together are so often subverted and unattainable for so many. However angry they are at the state of the United Kingdom, the poets refuse to give up the hope for a better life for all its citizens. In the final poem of the collection, “The Miracle of Mould”, Jade Cuttle phrases it as such:
“The world spits me out like I’m sour; like the pollen
is poison in the flower that sprouts from the wasteland
of my heart. But I’m just hungry, that’s all,
tinning my hope in brine so it won’t turn stale.”
In the fight against food poverty, art and poetry will no doubt prove to be a useful tool to highlight the reality of the lives of those affected. These poems, especially coupled with the work displayed as part of the Behind Closed Doors exhibition, provide chilling insight into a world many of us are ignorant of or far too eager to ignore. By forcing people to vicariously live these experiences through art, End Hunger UK has the potential to grow its movement and affect meaningful change.
However, one of the issues facing organisations such as End Hunger UK is that our Members of Parliament don’t know the full scale of the problem of UK food poverty as there is no robust way of collecting statistics on how many people can’t afford to eat, or worry about where their next meal is coming from.
This October, a bill has been tabled by Emma Lewell-Buck MP, which will ask the government to start measuring food insecurity across the UK. If you have been moved to act by the poetry in this collection, please start by emailing your local MP to request that they support the bill. Find out more here.
Poems to end UK hunger: Young writers speak out can be read in full online here.