A wake-up call to address poverty, and hunger

It should also serve as a wake-up call to stop the further destruction of agricultural land; and its re-utilisation for other ‘recreational ‘purposes

A recent study of food price-hikes, conducted by Caritas, should really serve as a long overdue wake-up call for some concerted action targeting low-income groups, and other vulnerable categories in general.  

In brief, Caritas concluded that that basic food prices in this country have skyrocketed by as much as 20%, between July 2020 and February 2022. For instance: where, in 2020, a family of four would have had to spend around €600 per month (or €7,100 a year) on basic foodstuffs to live decently… less than two years later, that same family must spend around €700 per month (or almost €8,400 a year) in order to buy the exact same products.

Unsurprisingly, the most aversely-affected are the elderly. In 2020, a basic basket of food would have cost an elderly couple €280 per month, or €3,370 per year. In 2022, however, an elderly couple would have to fork out €350 a month (€4,200 per year) for the same items.

Significantly, however, the research itself – though published this week - had been carried out before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last March. This suggests that this already-alarming situation is likely to be far worse today: due to the impact of a war which has also aggravated pre-existing problems, connected to both the disruption of supply chains during COVID, and – separately – the impact of Climate Change.

Moreover, with no end in sight to the war itself, there is little hope that these inflationary pressures will resolve themselves any time soon. Even without factoring in the Ukraine war, however: the results still paint a bleak economic future, for those categories that are already struggling to make ends meet as things stand.

At this point, the government would be well-advised to treat this situation as, at minimum, a potential ‘economic emergency’ in the making. And while there is little any government can do to restrain food prices, in the context of a free-market economy… there are other ways in which governments can be more proactive.

For instance: while the current administration has (rightly) shielded households and businesses from the spike in energy prices, government’s direct assistance to families facing increased food prices, has so far been limited only to the pre-electoral, one-time ‘€100 cheque’ for workers; and ‘€200 cheque’ for pensioners. 

Not only does the Caritas study reveal that those sums of money – while exceedingly ‘generous’, as pre-electoral hand-outs – fall far short of addressing the problem at street-level: clearly, solutions of a more ‘long-term’ nature are now needed, with urgency. 

On a more positive note, on Sunday the Prime Minister also announced that that “millions” will be allocated to keep the price of wheat stable. But although preventing a hike in bread prices is indeed crucial: it is the entire shopping basket which is becoming more expensive.  (Moreover, low income earners have a right to a healthy and balanced diet, too.)

Given the emergency we are now facing, it would make more sense to direct any forthcoming handouts towards lower income groups: ideally, through means-tested vouchers, or cash transfers.  For this time round, the logic of such assistance is not that of ‘kickstarting the economy’ - as was the case with COVID vouchers - but of assisting those who are either living in poverty, or at risk of poverty.  

Apart from the urgency of increasing the minimum wage, the government should also, in this context, consider a number of the practical, eco-friendly (and not so expensive) solutions proposed by Caritas itself.  

These proposals, which tie in with the idea of a ‘circular economy’, would go a long way towards giving low-income groups the tools to fight the increase in prices, without relying exclusively on handouts.

They include ‘no-waste’ food apps, through which low-income families can be connected to sources of surplus (or about-to-expire) food.  One could go a step further, by making it obligatory for supermarkets to offer surpluses – or food which would otherwise go to waste - to collection hubs, where those entitled can collect the foodstuffs for free.

Another interesting proposal, which also ties in with environmental considerations, is to increase the number of farmers’ markets available across Malta: in view of the fact that the Ta’ Qali farmers market was among the cheapest sources of fruit and vegetables, compared to chain supermarkets and locality grocery vendors.  

This shows that increasing reliance on local food supplies, by supporting agriculture, is crucial in insulating the country from global food-supply problems.  

It should also serve as a wake-up call to stop the further destruction of agricultural land; and its re-utilisation for other ‘recreational ‘purposes. It is scandalous that vast tracts of agricultural land are being sold to people who are simply interested in enjoying a view (by buying a pseudo-agricultural store) instead of being used to grow crops which can ensure a supply of cheaper, healthy food.  

In brief, the country cannot continue sacrificing more agricultural land in this way; and above all, we need to invest more in our own, local food supply. And while this has been the case for several years now; under the present circumstances, it should clearly be identified as a top national priority.