‘The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos […] pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.’ These are the words of Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, from 2017.
Professor Alston’s words resonated hugely with me when I first heard them. Over the last decade, thousands of people who care deeply about our class and communities have done everything they can to fight the effects of austerity. They have devoted time and energy to step in and protect the vulnerable from extreme poverty, but we were always tending the wounds which were repeatedly and constantly inflicted.
I remember a particularly cold afternoon in 2018, collecting food donations at Anfield. I was with other Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF) volunteers, and we could barely feel our toes as we collected food donations from fans. We knew that many people in our city and beyond who were already struggling would now be choosing between heating and eating.
I turned to FSF Chair Dave Kelly in a moment of despair and said: ‘What’s the point here? We’re just applying a sticking plaster to a terminal illness.’ It was clear that the only way to tackle the food poverty we were seeing was systemic change – and we needed it immediately.
Winning the Right to Food
The advent of the National Food Strategy—the first overview of Britain’s food strategy since 1945—headed by Henry Dimbleby gave us an opportunity to fast-track the Right To Food into legislation.
With the second part due to report this year, we mounted a campaign to harness public support, building political pressure on Dimbleby to embed the Right to Food into the new strategy. This was the opportunity to create the change we desperately needed.
From Newcastle to Portsmouth, the Right To Food campaign has taken hold across the UK, ably assisted by mayors, council leaders, councillors, activists, faith groups, and faith leaders, and by trade unions such as Unite and the BFAWU – all pushing the Right To Food message and gaining the support of the nation.
The campaign has even begun to shift the conversation in Westminster. Now a cross-party group of MPs has looked at the government’s response during Covid and is calling for the exploration of a Right To Food as a way of preventing food insecurity long term.
On 17 March 2021, after listening to people across the communities and organisations involved in the fight to end food poverty, the Right To Food campaign made its own submission to Henry Dimbleby, drawn up with the support of Shami Chakrabarti, for consideration as part of the National Food Strategy.
Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition, obesity, and a host of other related problems. It impacts children’s educational attainment and life chances.
Less measurable, but no less important, is the effect had on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time in our polarised world of foodbanks beside investment banks. The last year has demonstrated that in the face of new threats and challenges, society is only as resilient as its most vulnerable and as its mechanisms for caring for everyone.
The Right To Food campaign has built its submission to the National Food Strategy around four key areas—the Four As—to focus on what we believe the Right To Food would deliver:
Legislation and accountability is needed to make food rights real and enforceable. Without this, the government has had to be shamed into providing free school meals during the holidays, and it continues with its plan to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week, despite evidence that it will result in even greater foodbank usage.
Food needs to be practically in reach for everyone by way of wage and benefits levels, pricing, direct provision, or a combination of all three.
This food must be sufficient in quantity, safety, and nutritional content. We need little more than some of the images of state funded food parcels sent to children earlier in the pandemic by private contractors to understand that legal duties are required.
The experience of the pandemic and Brexit suggest that in the face of other challenges such as climate emergency, there is a need for legal duties and powers for the government to guarantee food security for all the people in the UK.
In caring, confident, and aspirational countries, a right to food should not just be a safety net, but a rope ladder to ever-higher standards of provision. We proposed the following as an extremely modest and deliverable beginning to realise the our campaign’s journey:
- Universal Free School Meals
Every child in compulsory education should be provided with a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch.
- Community Kitchens
‘Community kitchens’ to provide dining clubs and ‘meals-on-wheels’ for the elderly and vulnerable, school holiday meals for those most in need, and cookery clubs and lessons for the wider community. There should be duties, shared by national and local government, as well as state-funded schools themselves, to provide them.
- Reasonable Portions in Benefits and Wages
To tackle the choice that too many people must make between food, fuel, and other daily essentials, the secretary of state should be under a duty when setting minimum and living wages and any relevant social security benefit (on which people are expected to live) to state how much of that sum that has been calculated for food. This transparent figure can then be subject to public scrutiny, parliamentary debate, and ultimately, review in the courts.
- Ensure Food Security
There should be a duty on the secretary of state to ensure food security for our nations and to take this duty into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government, and all other policy. There should be corresponding powers to issue compulsory directions to private parties in the context of anticipated local, regional, or national ‘food emergencies’ relating either to food standards or supply.
- Independent Enforcement
The various new rights and duties outlined above will only be meaningful if accompanied by sufficient oversight and enforcement powers granted to a new independent regulatory body. This could take the form of an enhanced and additionally resourced combined Food Standards and Security Agency.
The Next Steps
This set of duties which make up the Right To Food are achievable, and should be the beginning of the conversation, not the pinnacle of our ambitions. In the words of the great Nelson Mandela: ‘Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.’
As a nation, we cannot continue to fail millions of people with life expectancy rate differences of ten years in the same city. People deserve to live, not just to exist. Our children are being raised with their parents barely surviving due to food poverty, and only systemic change in the form of a Right To Food can begin to fix our broken society.