It’s Time to Declare a National Food Emergency

Today in Britain, 7.3 million people don't have enough to eat. It is the great moral scandal of our time – but the government is determined to look the other way.

Crates of food are seen at a foodbank sorting hub at an industrial estate, on 15 February 2022 in Weymouth, England. (Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images)

The UK is facing a full-blown national food emergency. Recent Food Foundation data has recorded 7.3 million adults and 2.6 million children in UK households going without food or physically unable to get food in the past month.

Spiralling food and energy prices and over a decade of real wage and welfare cuts mean that millions do not have the means to purchase their basic needs. Those just able to keep their heads above water spend much more of their income on essentials like food and fuel, and the more expensive the cost of living becomes, the more life becomes about basic survival.

The long-delayed Government Food Strategy was lauded as the plan to help address this growing crisis. It was also supposed to lay out a vision for how we create, enhance, and protect sustainable food supplies. So the White Paper published this week is beyond disappointing.

There is nothing in it to address the hunger afflicting Britain, and no vision for a sustainable, food-secure country where not one person goes hungry. Even the government’s own lead advisor Henry Dimbleby, whose review of Britain’s food system formed the basis for this week’s publication, said the White Paper did not amount to a strategy—and could actually mean even more children going hungry.

This hollow offering, which sees the Conservative government effectively absolving itself of any responsibility to feed people, comes just when Britain needs an interventionist approach—both at UK level, and across the devolved administrations—because of the consequences of the entrenched structural inequalities that have developed over decades. Instead, working families will again have to look elsewhere for food security.

The Question of Work

As a recent Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union survey indicated, many food workers  are themselves forced to rely on food banks, and are facing insecurity over feeding themselves and their families. This survey was a reminder of how so many of those on Universal Credit or in ‘in-work poverty’ do not have the sufficient income to meet their basic needs.

What’s often missing from conversations around food security, then, is the central role of work—both paid and unpaid, as well as its absence—in conditioning what and how the nation eats. Inspired by the Right to Food Campaign, supported by the likes of the Bakers Union and by MP Ian Byrne, which seeks to enshrine this basic human need in UK law, a coalition of academics, community activists, and trade unions has recently founded a Food and Work Network at Birkbeck College, University of London, to understand the interplay between working patterns, pay, terms and conditions, and wider issues of care, transport, housing, and leisure time in determining food security across the country.

The Network’s proposition is that working time, and how it is organised and rewarded, is critical to understanding food inequalities and food insecurity. People on zero-hour contracts, working long, uneven, and precarious shifts on low pay, simply don’t have the additional time, energy, and money to prepare affordable, nutritious, and diverse meals at home on an average working week.

This is even more the case for those unemployed or on Universal Credit, whose five-week wait compounds the enduring anxiety and stress that food poverty generates. Banning zero-hour contracts, increasing the National Minimum Wage to a real living wage of at least £15 an hour, and restoring the £20 uplift to a substantially higher Universal Credit, as well as removing the five-week wait, are all steps that would begin to confront these structural sources of food insecurity.

Food injustices do not, however, just relate to workplace pay and conditions. They extend into the household and community when employees clock off, too, and indeed connect more widely to the complex supply chains across the whole of the global food system. Access to affordable, nutritious food is hampered by poor and expensive public transport in both urban and rural areas. Unpaid household labour—shopping, feeding, cleaning, caring—exacerbates existing social inequalities.

Without a commitment to the permanent, year-round universal school meals for which Marcus Rashford so effectively campaigned in 2020, for example, millions of children across the UK will continue to suffer from ‘holiday hunger’. We know from Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) surveys that nineteen percent of Black/African/Caribbean/Black British households were ‘food insecure’ prior to the pandemic, compared to seven percent of white British households, too. Since then, Covid-19 has revealed the stark inequality in health outcomes among different ethnic groups, aggravating underlying structures of occupational infection risk and diet-related co-morbidities.

How to Respond

These problems can seem, and often are, daunting for working-class families and communities. But people have long fought back through organisation and solidarity, highlighting that hunger in the UK today is a political choice, not some inherited condition.

Initiatives like the Kensington Pantry in North Liverpool, North West London’s Granville Community Kitchen, or the Larder in West Lothian, Scotland, mobilise community networks and spaces to address food insecurity beyond the flawed food bank model. From Sylvia Pankhurst’s wartime ‘cost price restaurants’ and the work of Women Against Pit Closures in 1984-85 to today’s National Food Service, working-class neighbourhoods and organisations have a long history of making food poverty a class issue.

Faced with the current food emergency, though, workplaces remain the critical site for redressing food injustices. Unionising food workers across the whole of the chain, from field to fork—encompassing seasonal fruit pickers, meat packers, delivery riders, or fast-food workers—is a challenging but central task for the labour movement, and the most powerful way to avoid the tab for cheap food being picked up by people and planet.

Leveraging public resources through progressive procurement like the Preston and North Ayrshire model of community wealth-building, or by reinstating key worker entitlements to housing, health, and care services close to workplaces can also help to transform our towns and cities so that food supply chains are shortened and thinned out.

In the longer term, radical land reform must also be on the food justice agenda, so that the UK food system adapts to a post-Brexit setting and decarbonises in ways that benefit the most vulnerable producers in rural communities. Counterintuitive as these alliances may seem, small farmers and supermarket workers are equally—if differently—exploited by the big supermarket chains who have seen shareholder profits soar at the expense of rock-bottom farmgate prices and chronic below-living wage subcontracting.

Where to Start

There is no shortage of radical policy proposals and ideas to fix our broken food system, from the 2018 People’s Food Policy to Tim Lang’s more recent blueprint for feeding Britain in a just and sustainable way. But the need for action is urgent, and only growing more so.

We should start with a National Food Emergency Summit that calls for the Right to Food be enshrined in law, so that UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments acquire a statutory responsibility to resource and deliver a plan to ensure every citizen can access safe, affordable, and nutritious food. The Summit should be replicated in all devolved administrations and within local areas, with councils and mayors organising national, regional, and local food plans to ensure no-one goes hungry in the UK.

Ahead of Saturday’s ‘We Demand Better’ march and rally, then, we call on the TUC, the wider trade union movement, all political parties, religious leaders, academics, researchers, campaigners, and all the people of this country to demand that governments act now to call a National Food Emergency—as the first step to addressing the food crisis facing so many people. There is no time to waste.

About the Author

Alex Colás is Professor of International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London.

Michael Calderbank works for Solidarity Consulting, a political consultancy working for trade unions and the not-for-profit sector. He is an active member of Tottenham CLP and a Contributing Editor at Socialist Register.

Tommy Kane is the former senior political advisor for Scotland to the Leader of the Opposition's Office (LOTO). He is a member of Tribune's advisory board.