Tory cabinet minister Therese Coffey has suggested people struggling to afford their soaring food bills could consider working more hours.
Labour MP Rachael Maskell could be heard saying “that’s appalling” as the environment secretary replied to her concerns about food banks in York running out of stock.
Ms Coffey also said the widespread shortage of some fruits and vegetables – which has seen supermarkets introduce rationing – may last as long as another four weeks.
The minister also appeared to suggest that people could eat turnips – saying seasonal eating would solve the shortage of tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables.
Asked about the struggles of hard-up families during the cost of living crisis, cabinet minister noted inflation is “really tough at the moment” and outlined support schemes in place.
Ms Coffey also said the best way for people to boost their incomes is by either getting into work if they are unemployed or “potentially to work some more hours” or “get upskilled” in a bid to secure a higher wage.
During an exchange in the Commons, Ms Maskell, the Labour MP for York Central, said food banks in her constituency were running out and forced to “eke out food supplies”.
As well as suggesting people get more hours or better jobs, Ms Coffey pointed to the government’s household support fund – saying the “local welfare grant that was given some time ago now by central government to local councils is there for them to use as well”.
The Liberal Democrats have called on the government to convene an emergency Cobra meeting after supermarkets – including Tesco, Aldi, ASDA and Morrisons – placed limits on the amount of fruit and vegetables customers can buy.
Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine said people were “rightly alarmed” by empty shelves and said the government appeared to have “no urgent plan to fix it”.
“We need an urgent Cobra meeting, together with food experts, supermarkets and farmers, to hammer out an urgent solution to this crisis. Ministers cannot just sit on their hands while food supply chains across the country grind to a halt.”
Labour also called on Ms Coffey to apologise following an “outrageous display” at the NFU conference – where she was booed by farmers for failing to accept there was market failure in Britain’s food supply.
The environment secretary said government officials expect food shortages “will last about another two to four weeks” – citing weather in Europe and north Africa for crop failures.
She said her department “has already been in discussion with the retailers” to discuss how to source alternative supplies. “It is why there will be further discussions led by ministers as well, so that we can try and get over this and try and avoid similar situations in the future,” said Ms Coffey.
“Even if we cannot control the weather it is important that we try and make sure the supply continues to not be frustrated in quite the way it has been due to these unusual weather incidents,” she added.
Ms Coffey suggested eat turnips would be a seasonal replacement for tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables which are in short supply.
“A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce, and tomatoes and similar,” she said. “But I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.”
Bad weather and transport problems in north Africa and parts of Europe have hindered the supply of other fresh produce from Spain and elsewhere, though farming campaigners and others have also blamed Brexit.
But the Save British Farming group blamed Brexit and the “disastrous” Tory government for the shortages – describing the idea of only the weather in Spain being to blame as “absolute nonsense”.
“The reason that we have food shortages in Britain and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the EU – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply,” said chair Liz Webster.