Our food systems need radical change. The solution is down to us
In October this year, seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Government voted against providing free school meals to children in low income households during holidays. Whatever their rationale was for this – that they were already providing support in other ways; that child hunger was the fault of irresponsible parenting; and that food vouchers would be exchanged for drugs; it backfired immediately, and tremendously.
Amidst a backlash that included one Conversative minister resigning, hundreds of businesses up and down the country, from local pubs to McDonalds, pledged to feed children in their communities during the week-long holiday that was coming up. At least 50 local councils also pledged to provide free meals, despite having their budgets decimated by austerity policies over the last decade.
By chance on that same day I’d finished writing an article about food poverty and ways to address it. I wrote that even before the pandemic, the UK had one of the worst rates of food poverty in Europe, with food banks reporting that one in five mothers frequently goes hungry to be able to feed her child. This image sits in stark contrast to excuses like “at one school… 75 per cent of kids have a social worker, 25 per cent of parents are illiterate”, when the most important fact should be that 4.2 million children are living under the poverty line, in the middle of a pandemic.
The decision has since been U-turned, but it took a lot of noise. From whichever angle you look at this picture, something is clearly very wrong. One in ten adults experience food poverty. Malnutrition is on the rise, and is regarded as a ‘common problem’ by the National Health Service. Recent research analysed the height and weight of children around the world, and found that the UK had slipped substantially behind countries of comparable wealth. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that poor access to healthy food is the cause. UK food poverty has rightly been labelled a public health emergency.
Now we’re in the second wave of a pandemic, something more than a decade of progressively chipping away at public services has left us ill-prepared for. Even the business-driven Financial Times agreed last year that serious investment from the state was needed. But if we’ve learnt anything from our successive cabinets it’s that a centralised model of government that limits the resources of local constituencies does not work.
Is Boris Johnson aware that demand for one particular food bank in the south of Belfast has quadrupled this year? Does Priti Patel know about the devastating impact food poverty is having on the mental health of people in Manchester?
It’s crucial that we have a strong, state-backed security system to make sure people have equal chances in life; we only need to look at the countries with the highest quality of life year after year to see why this works. But in addition we need grassroots, localised, bottom-up solutions, that include the people they intend to help as active participants rather than passive recipients. We need access to food to be enshrined in law as a human right that everybody is entitled to. We need a national food service.
Already there are 13 groups up and down the UK that form part of the National Food Service, feeding local people in community centres and pay-what-you-can cafes, using surplus food from traders that would have otherwise been wasted. Importantly, there is no distinction between the people eating the food and those who are producing and serving it.
Supermarkets and other food retailers could work with hyperlocal, neighbourhood-based coordinators to feed the community. Just think of the job creation these new networks of sorters, drivers and couriers could bring about in our post-pandemic, recession-hit economy.
We’re about to exit the European Union and slide into an obvious black hole no one is talking about with no border arrangements in sight to bring any more in. To top it all, an almost-year long pandemic has exhausted stockpile storage space. We face the very real threat of food shortages for months.
But if local neighbourhoods began drawing on the concept of food sovereignty to produce their own food, with local farms and markets ensuring an affordable, sustainable supply, we could be equipped to deal with these problems. Additionally this type of – let’s call it public service – can allow communities to mobilise, get involved and help each other. We’ve seen the pain caused by a centralised track and trace system and Westminster-ordered regional lockdowns, to name two recent examples.
There is a better way. Empowering local councils to once again look out for their constituents, but also each one of us taking an active role in our community, whatever that may be – volunteer with a mutual aid group, make bread for your block, or form a cooperative. Working together is key. There is no reason why this can’t work.