The National Food Strategy: Part One makes a commendable start on addressing why so many people cannot access the food they need. But older, disabled, ethnically diverse and migrant people are still missing from the table, says Sustain’s food poverty team.
Sustain has joined others in welcoming the strategy’s recommendations on expanding eligibility for free school meals, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers and extending the holiday activity and food programme. We urge the Government to accept the recommendations and to act quickly to implement them. These are all important next steps to improving food security, nutrition and health for children in the UK, which campaigners such as Sustain have been calling for over many years.
However, the last five months have shone a spotlight on how precarious household food security is for many other groups of people, not just children. Given the National Food Strategy’s focus on responding to the Covid-19 crisis, we are calling on government to also take action on other key groups who are missing from the table.
The National Food Strategy rightly recognises that Covid-19 exacerbated the difficulties many older people face in regularly accessing good, nutritious food. A complex range of factors – including difficulty in getting out to shop, inappropriate public health guidance, and difficulties preparing meals – all pre-dated Covid-19 and put older people at risk of malnutrition and hunger. Indeed, figures from before the crisis show that roughly one in ten adults over the age of 65 are at risk of malnutrition, with this number likely to have risen under lockdown measures whilst so many older adults needed to self-isolate or shield.
Yet despite the report’s recognition of these issues, there is a still a gap in the government response. This is particularly concerning considering so many examples of what is needed – and what can work – already exist. Throughout the UK and other countries, communities, schools, the voluntary sector, social enterprises and local government developed innovative services both before Covid-19 and in response to the crisis. Sustain campaigns for the protection and enhancement of meals on wheels; older people deserve healthy, nutritious food at all times, and especially whilst they are making sacrifices through shielding to keep themselves and their communities safe. We are keen to work with the NFS team to ensure older citizens can play a part in the development of Part Two.
Relatedly, disabled people are also missing from the National Food Strategy table. This is concerning considering that, for disabled people, a variety of intersecting issues have been exacerbated by the crisis. Firstly, disabled people are at increased risk from Covid-19 itself and many were advised to shield or take additional precautions during lockdown. Two thirds of deaths due to Covid-19 in the UK have been disabled people. Secondly, the cost of living for disabled people is higher than for the general population, putting them at increased risk of financial insecurity and food poverty. Thirdly, changes to the Care Act meant that many disabled people lost access to vital at-home care, which includes meal preparation, during the crisis, thus facing additional barriers to the basic requirements of daily nourishment.
Together, these factors mean that the ability to eat healthy, nutritious food without having to leave one’s home was of paramount importance for disabled people during the pandemic and continues to be as lockdown lifts. If a second waves takes place, ensuring disabled people can access good, healthy food will be a key area for Government to address. We also think that the National Food Strategy team could usefully shape the Government’s response by consulting with disabled-led organisations and disabled people.
Henry Dimbleby writes that that Covid-19 “is a highly discriminatory virus, affecting Black and Asian people more than white people […] and the poor more than the rich.” But it is not just the virus that is discriminating, it is also discriminatory policies that disproportionately and unfairly impact on the health, well-being and economic prospects for Black people and ethnic minorities. Within the areas that the Sustain alliance covers, these include issues of income as well as access to fresh and healthy food and the means to produce it. Such considerations cross over from food into social and welfare policy, which fell outside the scope of the National Food Strategy. However, if government neglects to look at such issues in the round, it is less likely effective and sustainable solutions will be found.
Poverty rates are higher for Black, Asian and minority ethnic families overall, which is due to unequal access to well-paid and secure employment and puts them at higher risk of household food insecurity. Furthermore, all non-White groups in the UK have lower employment rates than their White British counterparts. Therefore, changes over the past decade to the tax and welfare system have disproportionately impacted this group. An intersectional analysis by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that the greatest losers from these recent tax and welfare reforms are disabled women of ‘Mixed ethnicity’ who have on average seen their income drop by £2,300 per year.
Government must also recognise the impact that “hostile environment” immigration policies have on people’s incomes, access to food and therefore health and mental well-being. Government should take into account the needs of people with different immigration conditions within the additional support that the strategy is calling for. For example, whilst we fully support the Strategy’s recommendation for free school meals to be extended to all children from a household receiving Universal Credit, this will not benefit the hundreds of thousands of children in families who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and therefore can’t access Universal Credit. Government must recognise the struggles that many migrants face, with their realities included in the recommendations so that no person in need is excluded from being able to enjoy adequate food.
Asylum seekers have to live off less than £40 per week for all their needs including food, travel, and clothes. The shared accommodation that is provided to asylum seekers raises particular challenges in relation to food storage and preparation, and Covid-19 has created additional problems in terms of safety and food access whilst sharing facilities such as kitchens and toilets. For people with NRPF, they are denied access to the main welfare support systems, meaning they are at a high risk of poverty, destitution and everyday hunger.
Countries around the world are facing up to the fact that Covid-19 is both a health and an economic emergency, of which food poverty and hunger are some of the most cruel and worrying manifestations. We must use this time and the insights that Covid-19 has provided to accelerate the best policies and initiatives to eradicate poverty and guarantee that everyone can enjoy their right to food. The UK is committed to human rights obligations and UN Sustainable Development Goals. It’s time we took those commitments seriously by placing obligations on government and local authorities to enable household food security, along with the necessary allocation of resources. Part Two of the National Food Strategy will be a good place to start and we look forward to supporting the strategy team to make this possible.
Food Poverty: Over 8 million people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat. Sustain is working with communities, third-sector organisations, local authorities and government, aiming to make sure everyone can eat well.
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Maddie (currently on maternity leave) coordinates the annual Good Food for London report and the national Food Power network, which supports local food poverty alliances across the UK. She previously managed Capital Growth at Sustain from 2015-2017.
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