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The UK Government’s response to the National Food Strategy cannot ignore inequality

With nearly one in ten people in the UK experiencing food insecurity and the ravages of climate change impacting communities across the globe and further worsening food insecurity, we need a national food strategy for England that is ambitious enough to tackle these issues head on, one that chooses to include, acknowledge, and respond to all of the issues that cause food insecurity.

Michael Burrows for Pexels

Michael Burrows for Pexels

This month the second instalment of the National Food Strategy for England was published. This strategy makes recommendations to government, which will respond within six months with a White Paper on what it will commit to do, to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time. When the first instalment was published last year, Sustain’s Food Poverty team and others raised a number of concerns, notably over the lack of inclusion of marginalised groups in the policy recommendations.

While the second instalment successfully brings together recommendations that touch on various aspects of the food system, including expansion of free school meals as well as the Holiday Activities and Food Programme, the UK government still needs to use the White Paper to commit to action to address root causes of food insecurity.

We call on the UK Government to use the National Food Strategy as a spring board to develop a food policy for England that takes into account the needs of both people and planet, but also crucially goes beyond a narrow understanding of food policy to examine how work, welfare, housing and immigration policies all impact on people's ability to access the food they need, as well as the types of food that they can afford, which in turn can affect their health and life prospects. Food insecurity cannot be meaningfully tackled without this wider lens.

Household income and food access

The National Food Strategy very clearly states that ‘the true cost of eating healthily should be calculated into benefits payments’. It was beyond the scope of the independent strategy team to address these issues, so it is vital that in its response, government now looks at the welfare policies that are pushing people into financial hardship, as well low-paid and precarious work that is outstripped by living costs and in many cases also subsidised by welfare payments; as well as immigration policies that restrict people from accessing support if they need it.

There were some welcome policy recommendations in the National Food Strategy to address food poverty, however we need to also look at why these policies need to exist in the first place. For example, why is it that growing numbers of children need to access free school meals in order to be fed during the school day or are reliant on food support during the school holidays?

What we need to see is that the drivers of poverty are addressed not just the symptoms; a child needing free school meals is a symptom of poverty and providing the school meal will not solve the poverty that is at the root of this inequity.

Of course, this does not need to be an either-or decision. Universal free school meals would benefit all children by providing them a guaranteed balanced meal every day as well as potentially supporting local jobs and food producers. Furthermore, uplifting benefit payments and asylum support payments, as well as reducing barriers to access welfare support would enable all people to make their own food choices in a dignified and independent way.

Why income matters

A great deal of the focus of the National Food Strategy and subsequent media attention has been on addressing obesity in the UK. However, it is impossible to disconnect diet from the structural drivers of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which for many people will be tied to income and their living situation. Without uplifting people's incomes and ensuring all people have adequate cooking facilities in their accommodation they will not be able to make the food choices that they want to make, and are likely to be pushed towards cheaper, less healthy options.

At a webinar that Sustain co-organised last year on the right to food, women from WINGS, a group of women with children who have no recourse to public funds, spoke about the obesity strategy and said that if the Government was serious about tackling obesity and health inequities, they would ensure that all people had an income adequate to cover their living costs so they could afford healthier food. The women talked about how they were fully aware of dietary guidelines as well as how to cook, but they just could not always afford to provide the healthier options that they wanted to feed to themselves and their children.

Disproportionate impact on marginalised people

In order for government’s response to the National Food Strategy to be meaningful it needs not only to work across departments but also take a cross-cutting approach to understand and tackle the multiple disadvantages people experience and how overlapping challenges can see some people disproportionately impacted by policy making.

There are clear structural drivers that help explain why certain groups are more affected than others by food insecurity. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission research on the cumulative impact of recent tax and welfare reform found that on average women lost £400 per year whereas on average men lost £30. Furthermore, the negative impacts were disproportionately felt by households from minority ethnic backgrounds, with one or more disabled members, with three or more children, or for lone parents. The latest UK wide food insecurity data shows that the households that are most likely to be food insecure are people from Black-led households, single parent families or families with three or more children.

Conclusion

For too long now food policy has been fragmented, widening the divide between people who have enough money to buy food and people who do not. The Government must take a holistic approach to addressing the root causes of the many issues within our food system. In England we have seen the proliferation and normalisation of food aid, and we know that this has only been exacerbated during the pandemic, perpetuating the structural inequity of certain groups paying the price for the shortfalls in our work, wages, welfare, and immigration systems.

With the impacts of the pandemic likely to be felt for a long time yet and with too many families unable to afford food and being reliant on food aid, the UK Government must use its forthcoming White Paper to address the root causes of food insecurity. This will mean going beyond sticking plasters. The UK Government’s response must include tangible action to dismantle the structural drivers of food injustice and a commitment to building a system that upholds everyone’s right to food.

 

Find out more about our work on food poverty and the right to food as well as further Sustain responses to the National Food Strategy.

Published 29 Jul 2021

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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Imogen joined Sustain at the end of 2017 as the coordinator for the new Right to Food project. The Right to Food Project is a collaboration between Sustain, Just Fair, Nourish Scotland, and the Institute of Health and Society of the University of Newcastle. Sustain’s work on this project is funded by the Baring Foundation.

Imogen Richmond-Bishop
Right to Food Coordinator Food Poverty

Rakhee joined Sustain in June 2021 (on maternity cover) and is coordinating Sustain’s London Food Poverty Campaign which highlights and encourages sustainable responses to food poverty, particularly where they address its root causes.

Rakhee Lahiri Westwood
London Food Poverty Campaign Coordinator Food Poverty

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