Putting rights on the table

There is something rotten at the heart of our food system. Hundreds of thousands of Scots are now depending on food bank parcels to feed themselves and their families, and this is increasing at a faster rate in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

A Menu for Change is a three-year project working with public bodies and charities across Scotland to test local strategies to prevent food insecurity and advocate for national strategies to address food insecurity.

There is no mystery about what is causing this crisis. The fundamental problem is one of low income. Wages have been squeezed, benefits are frozen and the cost of living has risen. Added to which, the Trades Union Congress finds almost 40 per cent of the growth in employment between 2011 and 2016 came from workers in insecure jobs – zero-hours contracts or insecure temporary work.

There is also little mystery about the action that needs be taken to address the failings of the social security safety net or the jobs market.

The UK Government must act urgently to end the benefit freeze and rethink welfare reforms that are leaving so many reliant on charity handouts. Universal Credit may be right in principle, but where it has been rolled out, new data shows 52 per cent more people are seeking emergency food aid.

Companies also need to go beyond food bank collections in their supermarkets and workplaces. They can make a significant difference to those with the lowest income by paying the real living wage and offering secure employment.

So far, so UK.

However, with the emergence of the Good Food Nation Bill, Scotland has a new opportunity to hold the Scottish Government to account for the food insecurity  – worrying where your next meal is coming from – experienced by its citizens. Having another lever to hold the government to account can only be a positive thing. Despite the outcry about the extent of food insecurity and concerted campaigning across the UK, policy change in these areas has been agonisingly slow.

The Good Food Nation Bill provides a unique opportunity to enshrine the right to food in law, making Scotland the first part of the UK to do so. Although there are some minimum standards for the food Scotland produces and consumes, the food system is broadly left to the direction of market forces or interventions by the charity sector. Emergency food aid is a case in point with an army of volunteers contributing four million hours of unpaid work to run the UK’s food banks last year.

Recognising the right to food wouldn’t stop charities and volunteers stepping up to help, but it would place the responsibility for protecting any of us from going hungry firmly with the state. Preventing hunger is such a basic and fundamental part of the contract between state and citizen, it is peculiar this hasn’t yet been matched with legal powers to enforce this right.

The Good Food Nation Bill is more than a right to food. It also enables us to act strategically to improve the food in every part of our public life – from land to table and back again. The policy landscape is littered with siloed food initiatives, be it emergency food aid, holiday hunger or food waste, which address part of the same problem without addressing the root cause or joining them up.

By looking at every area of public life through a food lens, we can ensure the Scottish Government’s new social security system reflects the actual cost of living; introduce a duty on local authorities to guarantee vulnerable people have access to nutritious food; and make sure all pupils have eaten well enough to be able to learn, in and out of term-time. We could adapt the approach the Scottish Government has taken on climate change to introduce statutory targets for tackling household food insecurity.

Scotland has distinguished itself among the UK nations for its vocal commitment to address food insecurity. With hundreds of thousands of people still worrying where their next meal is coming from, there is plenty more to be done – at every level of government. The Good Food Nation Bill is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to galvanise action around the food system and for all of us to assert our right to food.

Author: Polly Jones, Project Manager

This article originally appeared in The Geographer magazine.