The Scottish government has been in the news a lot of late. The call for a second independence referendum has split opinion both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. Some are rolling their eyes exasperated, fast losing patience with a pesky population of whingers, while others are looking on in admiration as Nicola Sturgeon squares up to Theresa May, casting Scotland as the last bastion of progressiveness in desperate post-Brexit Britain. Amid this exchange, the Scottish government continues to carve its own legal and legislative framework in the areas that it has jurisdiction over. One recent example was the announcement that it is considering an alternative, rights-based, approach to tackling food insecurity.
The suggestion that the right to food for all citizens should be enshrined into Scots law came from the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty, an independent body tasked with identifying the issues that push Scottish people into food poverty and developing preventative solutions. Martin Johnstone, Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, is the chair of the working group; members include Oxfam, Poverty Alliance, Trussell Trust and Nourish Scotland. The group’s message is that “fresh, nutritious food and a positive environment in which to eat it, is a basic right which all of us should enjoy,” a right that should be legally underpinned, formalising the government’s responsibility to ensure the nation is adequately fed – and potentially leaving it vulnerable to legal challenges if it fails.
The catalyst for the group’s report has been the spike in demand for food banks across Scotland. The Trussell Trust, the charity that operates a majority of the UK’s food banks, went from having one food bank in Scotland in 2011 to 51 by the end of 2016. The use of Trussell Trust food banks in Scotland increased by two-thirds in 2014/15 and went up a further 13% in 2015/16; 113,726 referrals for emergency food packages were made in 2015/16, 43,952 of which were for children. These figures relate only to the Trussell Trust in Scotland – it is estimated that 8.4 million people live in food insecurity in the UK, with 4.7 million regularly going a day without eating.
The causes behind this surge in need are myriad and vast, and a comprehensive analysis would require a total interrogation of the very principles of capitalism that structure our lives. But those agitating in the area of food insecurity point to specific trends and policies too: years of austerity, the rise of zero-hour contracts and the increasing precariousness of employment, and cuts to welfare benefits and community services. In particular, the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty singles out the dysfunctional workings of the welfare system as a key cause, with delays and errors in the administration of payments and punitive benefit sanctions pushing recipients into food insecurity.
This was brought to life in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake – the now infamous food bank scene confronting audiences who, through their own good fortune, might not have realised that Britain is experiencing a hunger crisis. The Independent Working Group on Food Poverty’s suggestion that a rights-based approach might bring change is ambitious, and they are pragmatic, “establishing the right to adequate food in Scots Law will not in itself end food insecurity just as homelessness legislation has not eradicated homelessness. It would mean, however, that the Scottish Government and other public bodies would have a duty to ensure that all individuals have secure access to adequate and affordable food including the means to purchase it.”
Would the problem be solved by simply ensuring people are fed, that they have enough to eat? The most commonly used definition of food poverty comes from Elizabeth Dowler at the Food Ethics Council, “food poverty is the inability to consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food that is useful for health in socially acceptable ways or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so”. Following this, a total eradication of food insecurity would require that people not only have enough food, but that they have enough good food. Food banks, and the charities, volunteers and donors that run them, have stepped in to feed those in dire need, but the emergency food parcels they distribute are not of adequate nutritional quality. Caught in a maze of health and safety regulation, charities require that donations are limited to a small range of foods: tinned vegetables and fruit, tinned meat, biscuits, cereal, pasta, beans, soup, tea and coffee. A friend who grows organic vegetables recently found himself with more carrots than he could ever get through in a lifetime, he took them to the food bank and was turned away by a pained volunteer – no fresh vegetables were permitted. Food banks should not be a necessity in a country as prosperous as Scotland or the wider UK, and they cannot be relied upon to deliver quality, fresh and nutritional food to the poor and disadvantaged.
Health and safety red tape aside, this links to the wider question of why fresh good food is more expensive than processed food. Why does a healthy diet seem to come at a premium? If you look at the question through a true cost accounting lens, the answer is that the market is skewed in favour of those who produce food unsustainably. The costs of making and selling food so cheaply – farmer subsidies, environmental clean-up costs, treatment for diet-related illness – is borne by wider society and not those producing it. Yet a preoccupation with sustainable, ethical, local, seasonal food is commonly dismissed as a concern of the privileged. An interest or desire for sustainable and good quality food is often dismissed as ‘posh’, event hough it may well be a concern of many poor and working class people. Though this distinctly class-ridden British attitude is infuriating and rather sad (why don’t we all feel entitled to good food?), tackling food insecurity with a sustainable hat on can seem distasteful. Extoling the value of sustainably linecaught tuna, seasonal berries, sourdough bread or organic chicken to someone queuing for emergency food at a Glasgow food bank seems ridiculous. Despite this, Angela Constance, the Scottish Equalities secretary considering the move to a rights-based approach, reiterated the need for a “sustainable” solution to Scottish food poverty.
What might this look like? The Scottish Food Coalition, a civil society group made up of diverse organisations – including Compassion in World Farming, Unite, the RSPB, and the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network – have joined forces “in recognition that the problems in our current food system are interconnected and cannot be changed by focusing on a single issue”. Their starting point is that “everyone has the right to sufficient, safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food obtained in ways free from stigma or status, now and into the future”. This, they argue, will be achieved through a shorter food chain, adequate employment rights in food production, a move away from resource-intensive models and towards organic and agroecological production, ending the commodification of grains and genes, improved animal welfare and reduced food wastage. Rather than treating extreme poverty and sustainable food systems as disparate issues, food is framed as a “tool for social transformation”.
The Scottish Food Coalition has applauded the notion of the right to food. A move to a rights-based approach may be largely symbolic, but it indicates a commitment to tackling hunger in Scotland, and, in principle at least, shifts responsibility for ensuring the nation is fed from individuals and charities to the government. Ultimately, though, food poverty is a symptom of structural poverty and inequality. Initiatives, coalitions, charities and well-meaning individuals can take action – but without radical change at UK government level the problem is likely to persist.
Photograph: Staffs Live