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Credit: Tony Alter

Food Insecurity and COVID-19

The rampaging Covid-19 pandemic has ambushed civil society organisations who are campaigning to end the crisis of food insecurity and corporate charity. With food bank demand escalating - what might the future hold?

Indeed, rich-world food insecurity is an indelible marker of the moral vacuum and material deprivation centering forty years of neoliberalism and broken social safety nets. Now, Covid-19 brings home the message that everyone is impacted by an all-enveloping food, public health and economic crisis. Everyone’s food security is at risk. This is also a crisis of shattered social values.

Combatting the pandemic demands all hands on deck. Yes ‘we are all in this together,’ but such words mask a prolonged period of political indifference to food insecurity by neglecting the right to food and collective solidarity. Then suddenly, for the common good, we must wash our hands, self-isolate and practice social (physical) distancing and street applause for the NHS may herald an end to a divided Brexit Britain. Yet Tory welfare policies have long been isolating and socially distancing the undeserving poor. If the UK wishes to end food insecurity, it cannot post Covid-19 repeat the false promises that economic growth will raise all boats and feed all families. 

Tory promises to ‘level up’ and end austerity are not only contradicted by commitments to roll out Universal Credit (UC) by 2024, but also by the surge of claimants made jobless by Covid-19. UC will become ever more dependent on the band-aid back up of corporate food charity. However, food banks are themselves increasingly unable to stock their shelves as supermarkets limit food purchases and food bank volunteers self isolate. 

Food insecurity is an income problem, not a food problem. It is a matter of access eg having cash in your pocket. Before Covid-19, the Parliament’s Select Committee review of the UK’s compliance with meeting its targets for addressing hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity was clear: low incomes and rising living costs; Universal Credit and the benefits system; and cuts to funding for local social care services. It recommended a single minister with a mandate for combatting hunger and food insecurity and working with civil society. Scandalously, the 2019 Tory election manifesto was silent about the more than 8 million people affected by food insecurity. This includes the 2.2 million reported as ‘severely food insecure’, which means they are going hungry, unable to put food on the table for themselves and their families. While civil society advocacy persuaded the UK government to measure food insecurity the report will not be available until 2021.

Sadly the UK government is seduced by the misleading claims of the transnational Chicago based Global Food banking Network - and FareShare its UK partner - that food banks are a ‘win-win’ solution for ending hunger and food waste. Unfortunately not. Food waste is a symptom of a dysfunctional industrial food system and domestic hunger a symptom of broken systems of social security, each of which demands structural reform. 

This Big Society social construction of food charity as the compassionate first responder is a threat to public health and social well being. Food banking has long undermined income assistance and social security reform informed by human rights. It depoliticises food insecurity. It removes the hunger crisis from public policy, allowing the government to ignore food insecurity’s underlying causes: poverty - unlivable wages, inadequate benefits and broken social security programmes.

The immediate Covid-19 emergency will undoubtedly drive thousands more to UK food banks likely supported by public funds, even perhaps a longer-term move to US-style public food assistance and corporate food banking system. This must be resisted. 

The government must refocus attention away from ad hoc food charity to income-based access to food and social security solutions informed by the right to food - as pioneered by Menu for Change in Scotland: CASH-RIGHTS-FOOD. Human dignity, choice and the right to food matter. Ratified by the UK in 1976 it provides a constructive public policy framework rooted in international law and economic, social and cultural rights. Government is the ‘primary duty bearer’ responsible for ‘respecting, protecting, and fulfilling’ the progressive realisation of food security for all.  

Labour’s 2019 manifesto has already outlined an action plan. Firstly, adopt the Right to Food, then commit to halving then ending food banks in three years. Next, de-couple food wastes from food insecurity and make the food industry responsible for its food waste. Scrap UC and replace the DWP with a Department of Social Security and guarantee a minimum standard of living. If the PM wants to ‘level up’ he should start here and build for the future on the massive injection of income support for those millions damaged by Covid-19. To put food on the table people need cash in their pockets, even the poor. 

By Graham Riches, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of British Columbia.

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