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What is the Right to Food?

The Right to Food campaign has been backed by city councils, charities and now, a group of MPs making recommendations to the Government. The Big Issue explains what putting the right to food in law would really mean
The Right to Food campaign is taking action on soaring food bank use - a problem faced by Brits well before the pandemic. Image: Pexels

The Right to Food campaign, created to end food poverty for millions, has been picking up momentum across the country. 

The movement was kickstarted by a Merseyside organisation Fans Supporting Foodbanks with the help of Ian Byrne MP, aiming to enshrine people’s right to food in law. Now a Westminster committee wants the Government to adopt the policy and end food poverty for good.

The poorest families across the UK were forced to choose between eating, heating their homes and keeping up with rent even before the pandemic. Now lockdown has intensified the financial pressure on people struggling to get by, and experts fear national hunger could continue to get worse even after the Covid-19 crisis passes.

Why is the right to food important?

UK food poverty levels, and its reliance on food banks, have been rising consistently year on year for nearly a decade. But the number of people in need of emergency food parcels hit new heights in 2020 after the Covid-19 crisis caused thousands to lose their jobs or see their incomes cut significantly. 

The nearly two million people who turned to food banks last year were a marked rise on the 913,000 receiving emergency food in March 2013. Meanwhile around ten million people across the country are experiencing food poverty, according to Ian Byrne, campaign leader and Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby.

Nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February 2021, according to a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

Testimony from parents and carers revealed families were having to make trade-offs like going without healthy food in order to afford school uniforms for their children when they returned to school after lockdown.

Emma, a mum of three in Kent, told the Big Issue she and her husband had skipped meals to make sure their children didn’t go without, but could not rely on their children receiving a nutritious lunch at school because they did not qualify for free school meals.

“I think we’re at a real tipping point as a country,” Byrne, who spearheaded the movement, told The Big Issue.

“We’re one of the richest countries in the world. What do we actually want for our society? Do we want 10 million people to be in food poverty and hungry? How does that produce a cohesive, happy, fair society? It doesn’t.”

What will the right to food mean if adopted across the country?

Giving every person a legal right to food would place responsibility on the Government to end hunger. 

The right to food would make it easier to hold politicians legally accountable for ensuring families like Emma’s did not have to make these difficult choices and would always know where their next meal was coming from.

Many of those backing the Right to Food campaign have asked specifically for it to be included in the National Food Strategy, an independent review commissioned by the Government which has been described as England’s biggest food policy shake-up in 75 years. 

Newcastle councillor Ann Schofield, who successfully brought forward a motion which saw the city formally support the campaign, told The Big Issue that the Government had “largely failed people over hunger, particularly children”.

Campaigners believe it would give the public more power to hold ministers accountable for ending food poverty, by creating a legal mechanism for enforcing it.

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The legislation would place new responsibilities on authorities to ensure everyone has access to food. That could include measures to boost people’s incomes (like an increased – and required – real living wage), a cap on living costs such as utility bills, and easier access to nutritious food such as extending free school meals to more pupils.

Making the right to food a legal right would also play an important role in tackling the climate crisis as well as poverty, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The UK’s transition to net-zero carbon emissions – aimed for by 2050 according to Government targets – will require large-scale reforms to the food sector, IPPR said, which is responsible for more than a fifth of the country’s carbon footprint.

But people in poverty must not be forced to foot the bill for the change to a sustainable food system. Food which does not harm the environment – meaning the ways it is grown, harvested, transported, processed and packaged must change – should count for the majority of calories consumed by Brits by the year 2030, the researchers said.

A legal right to food would protect those most in need of support from facing hunger.

“A healthy meal shouldn’t cost the earth, it should help save it,” said Luke Murphy, head of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission.

“Ensuring everyone has access to a healthy and environmentally friendly meal should be the goal of any policy action to improve the way food is produced and consumed.”

Who has already backed the right to food campaign?

Local leaders across the country, including in Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool have backed the campaign. 

A number of other organisations such as JustFair and Sustain UK have helped drive the project, while others like Unite the Union have given their public support.

Politicians in York are campaigning for the city to be next in line to join the Right to Food movement. The city’s Labour branch is petitioning for the council to recognise local poverty levels, with more than 4,000 children living in poverty despite the city’s “affluent” reputation.

Rachael Maskell, Labour Co-operative MP for York Central, supported the campaign and said her office had “dealt with some truly heart-breaking cases” during the pandemic including “mothers going hungry to feed their children” and elderly people having to choose between heating and eating.

“If it were not for the generosity of people giving food and money to local food banks hundreds of people in York would have ended up in food destitution,” she added.

“This issue cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet any longer. Both the Government and Councils up and down the country need to reflect on the scale of this issue and take the chance whilst this review is taking place to ensure that the right to food is made into law.”

What can I do to back the Right to Food?

A public petition calling on the Government to enshrine the right in law has amassed nearly 50,000 signatures.

“Tackling poverty in all forms is a key priority for this Government,” ministers responded, adding: “We have provided an unprecedented level of support over the past year to protect the most vulnerable through the COVID-19 pandemic.” The petition is still collecting signatures.

People who want to get involved have also been invited to email Ian Byrne MP to add their signature to the Right to Food campaign pledge, or to ask their local MP to sign the Early Day Motion on Food Insecurity and the Right to Food.

Campaigners have also encouraged the public to contact National Food Strategy chair Henry Dimbleby to recommend the Right to Food is included in the review.

“Many people have spent the last decade fighting for their communities, doing what they can to keep people’s heads above water,” movement founder Byrne added. “Outstanding acts of selfless activism. But always putting a sticking plaster to a gaping wound. 

“That’s what we’ve tried to do with the Right to Food, get people to ask: how can we end this situation?”

As a last bit to ensure a legal right to food makes it into the National Food Strategy’s second phase next month, Byrne and his fellow campaign leaders in Fans Supporting Foodbanks have named June 28 a national Right to Food day.

They are asking anyone who has backed the campaign to show their support.

“We want to show the enormity of what is going on from all of the respective groups from right across the country, whether it be football clubs or local authorities. It’s not a red or blue thing, it’s not a scouse thing, it’s across the whole of the country,” said Dave Kelly, national chair of Fans Supporting Foodbanks.

Here’s how they say you can take part:

  1. Take a photograph of yourself or your team holding a piece of A4 paper that says ‘I / We support the Right To Food’
  2. If you are on Twitter, tweet the photograph saying why you support the #RightToFood campaign – please use the #RightToFood hashtag and tag in @IanByrneMP and @SFoodbanks
  3. If you are on Facebook, post your photograph saying why you support the #RightToFood campaign, be sure to use the #RightToFood hashtag and tag @IanByrneMP and @FansSupportingFoodbanks
  4. If you are on Instagram, post your photograph saying why you support the #RightToFood campaign, be sure to use the #RightToFood hashtag
  5. Ahead of Monday, spread the word about the National #RightToFood day taking place on social media to family, friends and colleagues and ask them to get involved in the campaign
  6. Throughout Monday, tweet and post as many times as you can using #RightToFood