Religious leaders in the UK have put the country's coalition government on the defensive over growing food poverty and drawn attention to rising malnutrition in the world's sixth-largest economy.
Forty-three Christian leaders jointly signed a letter to the Daily Mirror newspaper denouncing reforms to the country's welfare system under Prime Minister David Cameron, which they claimed were creating a "national crisis".
The unprecedented political intervention by faith leaders has spurred talk of a rift in church-state relations akin to bitter exchanges in the 1980s between the Church of England and the staunchly conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The letter - sent last week by 27 of the Church of England's 59 bishops and 16 other Christian leaders - noted that 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year and that 20 percent of mothers are "skipping meals to better feed their children".
The figures show just over 5,500 people were treated in hospital between 2012 and 2013 for malnutrition.
It followed comments by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church labelling welfare reforms a "disgrace", and is significant for blaming food poverty on "cutbacks and failures" in the welfare system, which is undergoing the most radical shake-up in a generation.
The bishops' letter forms part of the End Hunger Fast campaign, which is calling for a national day of fasting on April 4 during the festival of Lent in solidarity with hungry families. Campaign spokesperson Keith Hebden said: "One person malnourished because of poverty when they don't have to be is a crisis in itself, but to have people in these numbers is serious and we need to do something about it."
Niall Cooper, of the charity Church Action on Poverty, added: "The figures show just over 5,500 people were treated in hospital between 2012 and 2013 for malnutrition. I wouldn't place all of that down to food poverty - but I think it's a symptom of the fact that increasing numbers of people in this country simply don't have enough money to feed themselves healthily."
'Public health emergency'
Criticism of food poverty in the UK has been growing louder as the demand for emergency food aid has soared. The largest foodbank operator, the Trussell Trust, fed just 26,000 people in 2008 but this year forecasts that one million people will need help.
In a letter to the British Medical Journal in December, Dr David Taylor-Robinson of the University of Liverpool and six other public health experts warned that the rising incidence of malnutrition was evidence of a "public health emergency" linked to welfare reforms. "Overall, these trends are worrying," Taylor-Robinson told Al Jazeera. "Broadly speaking, there is a suggestion that a lot of families, especially poor families, are finding it difficult - and these are the families most at risk of malnutrition."
In November, the government released figures to Jim Cunningham, Labour MP for Coventry South, showing that diagnoses of malnutrition in hospitals caused by lack of food or very poor diet rose from 3,161 in 2008/09 to 5,499 in 2013. In some parts of northern England including North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland, cases more than doubled.
Cunningham said: "The rise in the levels of malnutrition cases treated in hospitals in the UK is extremely concerning. It is of course difficult to point to simple explanations, but the role of poverty in causing malnutrition must not be overlooked."
End Hunger Fast believes that welfare cuts, low wages, "zero-hour" labour contracts and rising food prices are all fuelling food poverty. "There are so many factors mitigating against a healthy, well-fed country and we need to deal with all of them - but the government at the moment isn't dealing with any of them," Hebden said.
Last October, Alan Milburn, the head of the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, warned that working parents in Britain "simply do not earn enough to escape poverty".
Cooper said: "Malnutrition is clearly a shocking issue, but what we've been drawing attention to is simply the numbers of people now using food banks. There is severe poverty, and the welfare safety net that we have taken for granted in this country for the last 70 years simply isn't up to the job."
The bishops' letter has fuelled talk of a rift in relations between churches and the state - with the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper asking whether Cameron was facing a "crusade" - and has forced the coalition government on the defensive.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg accused the leader of the Roman Catholic Church of "exaggerating" the impact of welfare reforms, and Cameron has insisted he is conducting a "moral mission" to end welfare dependency.
Food poverty campaigners have long called for an inquiry to determine what is generating the increase in use of food banks. Government spokespeople insist their growth is supply-led: that the supply of free food and greater awareness of food banks is creating demand. The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, restated this position in Parliament on Monday.
In an apparent response to the bishops' letter, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released a long-awaited report by the Food Ethics Council and the University of Warwick on the rise in food aid that had reportedly been passed to ministers last June but not published, creating speculation that it had been "suppressed". Its findings contradict claims that the rise in the use of food banks is supply-led.
You can't punish people into prosperity. It doesn't work or make any sense.
Campaigners insist that poverty exacerbated by welfare reforms is causing hunger. Last month, a separate report by the Scottish government explicitly connected the rise in food bank use with the effects of welfare reforms.
The campaigners are especially angry at the docking of claimants' benefit payments for a host of procedural reasons - a process known as sanctioning. Figures show that in the past year 900,000 people have had benefits stopped, for reasons such as missing a meeting with benefits officials or turning up late, resigning from a job even if moving on to a better one, or failing to complete a log of job searches.
Two weeks ago leading charities told the official Oakley inquiry reviewing benefit rules of "a culture of fear" in which the unemployed are set unrealistic targets to find work at the risk of their welfare payments being stopped.
Hebden added: "You can't punish people into prosperity. It doesn't work or make any sense."
On Tuesday it was announced that the Bishop of Truro is to co-chair a major parliamentary inquiry launched by the All-Party Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. Campaigners are now warning ministers that food poverty is likely to be high on the political agenda at the next UK elections in 14 months' time.
Cooper said: "Up to now the debate about welfare reform has been quite poisonous and has been framed in terms of blaming the workshy, but I think the intervention of church leaders demands a different response. Public opinion is shifting, so hopefully the politicians will catch up - and come up with more sensible policies."