1 Food insecurity is running out of money to buy food or being worried that you will – and facing the prospect of you and your family going without food. So the key cause is a lack of income, and in recent years we’ve seen more people in work struggling to make ends meet. Wages have stagnated for much of the population, and social security payments have not kept pace with rising prices of essentials including food, heat, housing and transport.
2 As much as a lack of income, food insecurity is also caused by gaps and fluctuations in income. We know from the recent Scottish Health Survey statistics as well as many other studies that people on regular and predictable incomes such as pensioners are less likely to report food insecurity because they have the power to budget.
3 When someone’s income suddenly dips or stops because of changing to Universal Credit, or having a benefit stopped, or not being given any hours on a zero hour contract or losing a job, then it’s inevitable that people will experience food insecurity – and insecurity in general (particularly if they don’t have a partner or savings). While people in better paid work can (and do) rely on a credit card to cover for gaps in income, many people on low incomes can only get credit at exorbitant rates if at all.
4 This uncertainty and precariousness in people’s lives has been more widespread in the past decade – the rise of the gig economy, part-time, temporary and zero hours work along with the hostile sanctions regime and then the switch to universal credit and the five week wait. So it should not come as any surprise that the UK does much worse on food insecurity than the rest of Europe.
5 If you designed a food system to ensure everyone can eat well and stay healthy, it would probably look very different to the one we have today. The industrial food and farming model has prioritised healthy profits, which means mass production and mass marketing of ultra-processed foods; chemical-intensive agriculture; and the development of long and deregulated global commodity supply chains.
6 Consequently, our whole ‘food environment’ promotes and normalises unhealthy diets. We have an intergenerational health crisis, with individuals, communities and institutions undermined by poor health, and diet-related diseases putting an unsustainable pressure on the NHS. Good nutrition is as important for our mental health, as well as our physical health, diets poor in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can have long-lasting and wide-reaching health implications. For example concentrations of antioxidants –linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases –are up to 60% higher in organically-grown crops. (British Journal of Nutrition, 2015).
7 One third of the 13 most common cancers in the UK could be prevented through improved diet and activity (World Cancer Research Fund) and yet spending on cancer prevention is 3% of total funding for cancer research (the rest is on treatment). (NCRI 2015)
8 While overall rates of childhood obesity have stayed the same for many years, there has been an increasing divergence between children from more and less affluent households.
9 Broadly, people in more affluent households eat the same amount of calories as people in less affluent households, but the quality of food differs. More affluent people have the capacity to eat significantly more of the ‘protective’ foods, particularly vegetables and fruit and oily fish. So they are not less overweight because they eat less, but because they eat better. Br J Nutr. 2018 Jul 28; 120(2): 220–226. doi: 10.1017/S0007114518001435
10 We haven’t made progress on childhood obesity because we haven’t changed our food environment and our food culture. We spend less of our income on food and we spend more of our food money on highly processed food, which messes up our metabolism. This starts in childhood, and fixing school food though important is not enough.
11 Overall, for a low-income household, buying the Government’s recommended diet would take a big chunk of their disposable income. This brings significant opportunity costs.
12 Veg, and in particular fruit, is expensive per calorie. In many urban peripheral estates and in rural areas (certainly in Scotland) they tend to be more expensive in small format stores, with a more limited range and often not very fresh. Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Dumfries & Galloway found that the same basket of goods costed £8.79 in Stranraer, but £24.40 in Dalbeattie. Some food items cost over three times as much, even within the same chain of supermarket.
13 Most convenience food and food eaten out of the home is low on veg, fruit and fibre.
14 Some of the useful things local authorities can do:
15 Nourish is not keen on ‘holiday hunger’ framing. In general, children from low income households have less access to out of school provision both in term time (breakfast clubs, after-school clubs) and in school holidays. Levelling up access to generic provision (which should as a matter of course include access to healthy food where relevant) is a better strategy than running separate targeted ‘holiday hunger’ provision. Local authorities can invest in this and set ambitious targets for improving access for all children and families.
16 What we can learn from food banks is the concern and generosity of ordinary citizens: and that many people who benefit from that concern and generosity repay it by becoming volunteers and staff at food banks.
17 However, people throughout the country – including many food bank volunteers and staff themselves – are increasingly frustrated that government fails to take responsibility for ending food insecurity. Despite their significant reach, we know that food banks are supporting only a small fraction of those who endure food insecurity, and they cannot be considered a credible response to hunger. This is a policy amenable problem, and government needs to take decisive action to tackle it.
18 There should be no food banks in the UK.
19 The right to food is a well-developed body of international human rights law and practice. At its core is the belief that everyone has the right to be able to eat well, and to a fair and sustainable food system. Responsibility for progressing towards this rests with government. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is one of the main human rights instruments protecting the right to food.
20 The UK Government signed and ratified this Covenant in 1976 but, unlike other human rights instruments, did not incorporate it in to domestic law. This means that food rights are not embedded in our law, policy, or practice, and cannot be enforced. The UK Government has the power to change this. This would then imply that food banks and others charitable responses to hunger would not be required as the UK and devolved Governments, local authorities, and all public bodies have developed action plans for progressing food rights.
21 The creation of an independent food commission would keep pressure on Government by reporting annually to Parliament on progress against these plans and on statutory targets aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals. Where government proposals or private sector developments threaten food rights, the Commission could issue recommendations on how to avoid regression. This information would be available to all, enabling us to collectively participate in holding government to account.
22 Government should accept its responsibility and bring forward urgently a cross-departmental plan to reduce and eliminate food insecurity in the UK.
23 Businesses which sell food naturally aspire to sell us more. They are under pressure to keep the costs of ingredients low – for example by putting more sugar and less cocoa in chocolate. We are more likely to buy a bigger portion or a bigger packet if we see it as better value – and most of us don’t have the iron will to leave the other half till tomorrow. So regulation which reduces portion/packet sizes, the percentage of sugar and the price per unit differential will have some impact on what we buy and eat.
24 It’s not obvious that people with more income or more education are less likely to fall for these ploys.
25 Modern milling methods lower the nutritional quality of bread with vitamins A and B1 nearly entirely lost. Modern stone-grinding techniques tend to overheat the flour, which can affect its nutritional quality, while roller mills waste about 25% of the grain, as they remove the germ, which contains vitamin E. Industrial bread no longer contains the complex carbohydrates or dietary fibre that are essential for healthy digestion. Breads are fortified to try to replace these lost minerals but these are less accessible to the human body.
26 Scotland the Bread is developing a new Scottish bread supply chain. It is growing at commercial scale and selling highly nutritious heritage flour. High Rise Bakers are based in a tower block in Gorbals; they are bringing high quality bread back to the local community, celebrating diverse food traditions and providing a space for refugees, migrants and long-time Scots to come together and learn new skills.
27 The UK has a cheap and quick food culture (for lots of reasons going back centuries). It’s a population-wide culture, and it’s a mistake to assume that people on lower incomes have a different approach to food.
28 Clearly, though, people managing on a tighter food budget are more likely to be forced to trade down to products that use more processing and additives to disguise lower quality ingredients such as mechanically recovered meat.
29 The average adult in Scotland consumes only 3 portions of Fruit & Veg a day, which is the same as 2003 levels, when the 5-a-day campaign began. 20% of adults eat the recommended 5-a-day, and just 13% of children. (Scottish Health Survey,2016
30 The Peas Please initiative seeks to tackle supply side barriers to vegetable consumption with a range of businesses, retailers, caterers and food manufacturers committing to take action to make it easier for people to eat vegetables.
31 Yes. The mainstream food industry (multiple retailers and the large out of home chains and contract caterers which account for over 90% of the food we eat, and so constitute our food environment) should be required to align their overall sales with the Government’s Eatwell Guide. They should pay a levy on the extent to which their sales figures diverge from this. (Similar to the EU requirement for car manufacturers to achieve fuel economy targets across their fleet).
32 Some government regulation (soft drinks levy, minimum unit pricing for alcohol) seems to have been effective.
33 Government example can be a huge driving force for change through public procurement. Local and seasonal food should be front and centre in all meals in schools, government buildings, hospitals and more.
34 Self-sufficiency is entirely possible for food stuffs which grow sensibly outside or in a greenhouse here but it would mean intervening in the market. Currently we produce far more calories than we eat, but we use most of the calories we produce to feed animals or make biofuels, and we waste far too much food.
35 In Scotland we only grow vegetables on 3.3% of our arable land while almost all of Scotland’s wheat production (20% of our cropped land area) is for whisky, animal feed and biscuits. At the moment the UK produces 54% of our vegetable supply. 40.5% comes from the EU and 5.5% from the rest of the world.
36 We could produce all the calories, protein, veg, dairy, eggs and meat we need for a healthy diet using agroecological methods, reducing our negative impact on climate change and the environment and improving animal welfare. The cost of food would increase overall, and therefore require a concomitant income transfer to low income households.
37 This would also have trade offs with the ambitions of Scotland Food and Drink’s massive export priorities.
38 Looking at this question on a smaller scale, a study of Stirling’s food system has demonstrated that developing the local food economy can deliver health, environmental, social and employment benefits. Using 10% of Stirling’s arable land would be enough to produce enough fruit and vegetables for everyone in Stirling to eat their five a day. However, currently less than 1% of Stirling’s arable land is used to grow vegetables, and there is just 1 greengrocer on Stirling’s high streets.
39 There is huge potential for much more high quality, nutritious food to be grown by smaller scale farmers – currently excluded from any advice or assistance due to being below the minimum land requirement for the Basic Payment Scheme (5ha in England and 3ha in Scotland). There is a misconception that only large pieces of land with large pieces of machinery can produce food, while in fact well-managed gardens, market gardens and allotments can produce very high yields while maintaining a diverse environment and providing social co-benefits.
40 In reality, though, we will continue to be a country that relies heavily on the rest of the world for feed and food because we operate in a global market with relatively modest protectionism through the Common External Tariff and the Common Agricultural Policy.
41 However, leaving self-sufficiency aside we could use current knowhow to reduce the negative impact of food production, improve biodiversity, cut food waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lock up more soil carbon while still achieving an increase in home production.
42 There is no contradiction between these measures, and they should all be looked at together in a coherent national food policy
43 Large retailers have done a good job overall in minimising food waste from retail premises and regional distribution centres, though they still generate waste upstream and they could do more to help their suppliers reduce waste. It’s harder to see progress in catering.
44 Current measures are not effective at all at household level. We are relying on ‘love food hate waste’ messaging and it is not making any difference. We know that changing behaviour is tough, and that the full range of interventions is needed at individual, social and material levels. But we are not investing in the scale and depth of approach needed: national campaigns must be complemented by local authority and neighbourhood level programmes.
45 Currently local authorities in Scotland are improving their food waste collection levels, and tend to be focused on separation and collection (which is hard enough) rather than reduction.
46 It is true that the changes in diet proposed by PHE would see sugar consumption back at 18th century levels.
47 The market currently drives businesses to produce much more food than we can sensibly eat, at a staggering cost in terms of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, human health and exploitation.
48 We need to repurpose the food sector to measure success in terms of nourishing people sustainably rather than in terms of sales and margins. This is hard to do within one country – but there is scope to work with the key retailers, manufacturers and caterers (who are conscious of this challenge and typically are signed up to the SDGs) to realign goals and incentives. Peas Please is one example of influencing the food environment through voluntary commitments.
49 Public procurement has an important symbolic role, although it accounts for less than 2% of the food spend. It tells us a story about who we are as a society. This has had a ripple effect for example in Denmark where the commitment to procure organic food in the public kitchen contributed to dietary change as well as changes in agriculture.
50 There is relatively little ‘food systems’ research of this type, and potentially value in comparing food systems across the OECD in terms of some of the key variables (farm and land policies, Gini coefficients, food self-sufficiency, food culture/social norms etc).
51 We can learn from many different countries, for example Brazil made huge progress with Zero Hunger, Amsterdam is taking childhood obesity seriously, the Nordic countries have worked together to change food culture over the last decade and more.
52 In the Netherlands they export over £6bn worth of fruit and veg each year all over the world, they are the number 1 exporter of fresh vegetables worldwide. At the same time, they face challenges in maintaining consumption and competing in a global market. In 2017, the Dutch Ministry for Agriculture and the Fruit and Veg Industry Body ‘Fresh Produce Centre’ therefore joined forced to create the ‘Dutch Action Plan for Fruit and Vegetables’. This initiative brings together public bodies, the private sector, and voluntary organisations with the aim to boost consumption of fruit and vegetables.
53 However, the missing ingredient in the UK is political will. Many of the patterns we see now were evident in Boyd-Orr’s Food Health and Income report in 1936. The UK seems to be intensely relaxed about its poor diet and its massive dietary inequalities.
54 Yes. A properly joined-up food policy, based on the incorporation of the right to food and a statutory food commission to monitor progress across key indicators and hold government to account; and active links to food system governance at EU and UN level.
Submission by Pete Ritchie on behalf of Nourish Scotland
12 September 2019