April 29, 2020 Blog

Food for thought: why Scotland needs a rights-based approach to combat food poverty

We live in a period of great uncertainty for everyone in Scotland. The sudden spread of coronavirus across the world has had a profound impact on life, and on all aspects of our society. Things which would have been unimaginable in December of last year, from the complete closure of large parts of our economy to the handing of mass new powers to the police to control how we assemble, how we move, even when we are allowed to leave our homes, are now parts of our everyday experience.

These exceptional circumstances have thrown up a great deal of new and complex challenges, and government has had to develop its response in real time, with policy evolving as the situation changes, sometimes quite dramatically, in the space of a few days. In this situation, it is right that the priority of government is protecting as many lives as possible, safeguarding our frontline key workers enabling them to save lives and keep vital services running, and protecting the jobs for the large number of people who find themselves furloughed at home. And it is inevitable that some of the pressing priorities that existed before will fall by the wayside.

Not all problems faced by society will be new and unpredictable. The Good Food Nation Bill was an early casualty to the changes in the government’s program; however, this crisis has emphasised the importance of food policy even more. For the first time in most of our lives, we have faced the sight of empty shelves. Restaurants and bars closed overnight, and parents who rely on free school meals faced uncertainty as local authorities tried to come up with the best solutions at speed. The Food and Drink sector is one of the most disrupted key industries.

For most people these changes have been unsettling. For some however, uncertainty around what, if anything, they would be able to eat is not a new phenomenon. We should remember, in our response to Coronavirus and in the aftermath, that many people lived in food insecurity long before the current economic and social disruption. Labour has, along with many other organisations, supported and campaigned for the Right to Food, which is recognised internationally as a human right, to be enshrined into Scots Law. This would enable much more effective and focused efforts to tackle food poverty in Scotland. The demise of the Good Food Nation Bill in this session of parliament does not detract from how important this campaign is, or its urgency.

Cultural appropriateness and dignity should be at the heart of a modern Scotland’s food policy.

Some of the heroes who will emerge from our battle against coronavirus will have been included in these statistics, and in the aftermath It should be a priority that no one, especially not key workers who have risked their lives for us, should have to rely on charity to eat. Community spirit is admirable, especially in a crisis, but it is the government, not charities, who should ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks in our welfare system.

Our social safety net, which has faced a decade of brutal cuts under austerity, has been challenged like never before. Many of those who have found themselves applying for Universal Credit, and experiencing the stress and problems that come with that system, would never have expected to find themselves in that situation. We should use these experiences to ensure that we emerge from this building a social safety net which is focused on compassion and support, rather than punishing “undeserving” people.

We don’t fully understand how the pandemic will affect our economy, but we must work together to ensure that Scotland’s food system works for all. We cannot revert to a situation where people have to choose between feeding themselves or feeding their children. When the time comes to learn lessons from current experiences and look to the future, the Scottish Government must put a rights-based approach to food at the heart of its agenda. It will no longer be possible for it to be seen as too difficult, or too radical for the state to act to ensure all people have a decent standard of living. We have seen in recent weeks how quickly and effectively the state can act, we must have the same urgency in tackling poverty, inequality and injustice.