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By Kath Dalmeny (Sustain), Koldo Casla (Just Fair), Elli Kontorravdis (Nourish Scotland) and Peter Roderick (Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University)

This blog was published first by The Baring Foundation

Hunger is not a thing of the past in the UK. Far from it. Sustain has recently been given a grant by the Foundation to coordinate and develop an alliance to advocate for the implementation of a right to food in the UK. This joint blog by members of the alliance explains what a right to food would mean for consumers and producers, and why now – with Brexit approaching – is the time to take it seriously.

In 2016, Trussell Trust, the largest UK food bank network, provided 1.2 million packages of emergency food supplies. For comparison, in 2009 they supplied 41,000 packages.

This is a symptom of, for example, increasing food and house prices, insecure incomes, rising debt, benefit sanctions, and financial problems for households dealing with disability and mental health. But this is a symptom of something else: That the human right to food is far from a reality for too many people in our country.

Half of the emergency packages went to households looking after a disabled person, three-quarters to people experiencing ill-health and associated financial insecurity, a third to households experiencing problems repaying debt, and a quarter to households reporting that rising costs – such as housing – meant they had simply run out of money to buy food. The majority had been referred to the foodbank by a professional body that had identified them as being in crisis – such as a GP, social security office or Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

And these people are just the tip of the iceberg – those in such crisis that they rely on charitable handouts. Food poverty, or household food insecurity, has a myriad of faces. It can affect children who lack free school meals out of school term time; parents on low incomes going without food so that their children can eat; working people whose low wages leave them struggling to buy healthy food; or housebound older people unable to prepare meals without support. Food poverty can be triggered by a crisis in finance or personal circumstances, but may also be a long-term grinding experience of not being able to access a healthy diet or afford to eat well.

Over recent years, food and poverty organisations have been working with local authorities and cities to instigate cross-sector food poverty action plans that move ‘beyond the food bank’ to more systematic and up-stream approaches to start tackling the root causes of modern-day hunger. Members of the Sustainable Food Cities network, the Food Power programme A Menu for Change, and Feeding Britain are just some of those supporting local action to address household food insecurity – exemplified by the Food Poverty Action Plan being championed by the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. It has also long been the ambition of the Sustain food and farming alliance – since our early work on food poverty in the 1990s – to put ending hunger on a robust legal footing that provides people with access to a decent standard of living that includes good food.

Despite these worthwhile local initiatives, so far the response is piecemeal. The scale and multi-faceted nature of the challenge requires a strategic approach and an obligation for government, agencies and local authorities to act in concert to achieve system-wide change. Household food security needs to be routinely measured, resources need to be allocated and public authorities must be accountable to vulnerable people and their representatives, establishing the legal foundations of a new approach to ensuring that everyone can eat well. Important progress is being made on legislating for the right to food in Scotland, with consultation on a Good Food Nation Bill expected to begin before the end of 2017.

The UK has ratified a number of international treaties that proclaim the right to food, but this human right has not yet been incorporated into national law. The adequate recognition of the right to food domestically would, for example, help embed measurement of household food insecurity; give vulnerable people and their advocates the right to demand action on factors affecting people’s personal circumstances (e.g. housing and energy prices and the ‘poverty premium’), put a duty on local and national authorities to take practical steps and provide adequate resources to improve incomes long-term, as well as help people through crisis, and trigger a requirement for provision of helpful and dignified support, facilities and services, as well as the necessary funding and other resources to achieve these. In fact, the UN made important recommendations in this regard last year, noting that:

“The Committee is concerned about the lack of adequate measures adopted by the State party [UK] to address the increasing levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, including obesity, and the lack of adequate measures to reduce the reliance on food banks.”

The Committee went on to recommend specific action to: promote and ensure improved access to healthier diets; support breastfeeding; introduce higher taxes on junk foods and sugary drinks; consider adopting strict regulations on the marketing of such products; and to take action to achieve progressive realisation of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.

The path provided by the right to food takes us further than this, to more fundamental system-wide changes related to ‘food sovereignty’ – access to land, a safe and secure food supply, and sustainable production that ensures good food, protects natural resources and means decent and secure livelihoods for the food producers upon whom we all depend.

These are the issues Sustain will be addressing in an exciting new programme of work supported by the Baring Foundation. Our purpose will be to bring together food, poverty, health and legal organisations – as well as representatives of the authorities and agencies that would need to take action – to design the basis of a new right to food. We will build on the knowledge and inspiration of colleagues in Scotland, who are already organising and advocating around such work, coordinated by Nourish Scotland, and drawing on the expertise and enthusiasm of Just Fair and the Institute for Health & Society at the University of Newcastle, among others. We will also involve people with experience of food poverty in shaping the terms of the right to food and how this might be expressed, advocated and implemented.

The timing is appropriate. The likelihood of losing rights when we leave the EU demands immediate action. We must contribute to a wider debate about the need to bring economic, social and cultural rights home. Brexit has been pitched as an ‘unfrozen moment’ to set a vision for our future lives. What better vision than a country where everyone, no matter what their circumstances, is able to eat well and not experience hunger? People living in poverty, or at risk of poverty, deserve protections that will ensure an adequate standard of living for them and their families. Now more than ever we must take the human rights to food seriously in this country. Please join us in designing how this vision can be achieved.