Social Justice

The UN poverty report shows that we need to fight for the right to food

Dr Philip Alston and Human Rights Watch’s UK findings show that the current system must go beyond merely feeding people – it must have a holistic understanding of the importance of food for every single human being

Philip Alston UN investigates poverty, food poverty and food banks

UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty Philip Alston on a visit to the UK in 2018. Image: UN

The most surprising thing to Kartik Raj when he toured the UK with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty was how parents dreaded their kids having even one day off from school as they struggled to feed them.

New York NGO Human Rights Watch’s Western Europe researcher’s investigation into food poverty as well as Dr Philip Alston’s 12-day whirlwind tour of foodbanks, schools and deprived areas of cities and towns all across the UK has lifted the lid on what life is really like on the breadline.

Both released their findings last week with scathing reports, laying bare how Britain has been impacted by years of austerity, welfare cuts and slashed local authority funding.

Holiday hunger? “If kids don’t go to school they don’t eat today,” a shocked Raj discovered.

The welfare safety net? It’s “gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm”, wrote Alston, insisting that the DWP has introduced a “digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse made infamous by Charles Dickens”.

Preventative services? They’ve been chopped in favour of “costlier crisis interventions”.

Compassion has been turned into a “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach”.

The list goes on. As Dr Alston puts it: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

Change on the menu

But among the shocking findings in both reports was a call for the government to acknowledge the human right to food and place it on a par with other rights.

The campaign to achieve this has been on the agenda in Scotland for a while, with Nourish Scotland’s campaign to bring the Good Food Nation Bill into force currently stagnating.

In England, food poverty charity Sustain and University of Bristol law professor Tomaso Ferrando have been pushing for the same recognition for the estimated 8.4 million who struggle to get enough to eat.

“Internationally in terms of law the right to food is already there. Throughout Europe it is a quite sad situation in that there is no country that has specifically recognised the right to food,” he tells The Big Issue. “The problem is that individual countries don’t give a shit about what is happening. Pushing for the explicit recognition of the right to food in law is not introducing new law or ideas, it is strengthening the obligation that is already there and giving the people more tools in order to claim for what they have a right to.

“What it will take and how it will look will really depend on the political will and the amount of political campaigning in that direction, it will take shaming and blaming those MPs who think that right to food is not a priority.”

The hope of achieving the necessary political will looks dim based on the government’s response to last week’s reports. Dr Alston’s findings were slammed as “barely believable” by the government, pointing out that UN itself places the UK as the “15th happiest place to live”. In fact, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has outlined plans to lodge a complaint with the UN, claiming the report was under-researched and politically biased.

And with Brexit dominating the news cycle and the oxygen in Westminster, reaching people is a challenge – one made doubly hard by the DWP’s paid-for Universal Credit cover wrap in the Metro newspaper on the same day. In fact, the reports were notably absent at Prime Minister’s Questions just hours after being published.

The government, however, has already listened to Dr Alston’s calls for a new, unified measure of counting the number of people in poverty, which has been pencilled in for 2020.

But the UN is toothless to force ministers to act through legal channels, so it will take civil society to carry the torch. After all, UK politicians have a dismal record when it comes to taking on the Special Rapporteur’s advice.

A post-war mentality

The Big Issue is also working to tackle food poverty by giving people the tools to make their food go further and the skills to cook healthy meals rather than relying on cheap fast food.

Edinburgh social enterprise Prep Table do just that with the backing of Big Issue Invest, our social investment arm.

Their work is vital in the current landscape and is part of the thinking that Ferrando discusses when he urges change in how food arrives on to plates in the first place.

Acknowledging a right to food in law would completely change the thinking on how it is supplied and how it is wasted, and give those who do not have enough to feed themselves while living on Universal Credit a legal framework to force the government to make changes.

The spike in foodbank usage and the MPs posing with foodbanks saying how proud they are of foodbanks is really what we are trying to challenge

Only then can we avoid familiar stories like Joanne, a 47-year-old single mother of four in Cambridgeshire, who spoke of dreading half-term and “gathering my pennies together” so her kids could have toast. Even the national foodbank charity the Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie notes that “no charity can replace the dignity of people having enough money to afford a decent standard of living”.

“It’s about a holistic understanding of the importance of food for every single human being and we don’t see it happening under the current system,” says Ferrando. “And I think that the spike in foodbank usage and the MPs posing with foodbanks saying how proud they are of foodbanks is really what we are trying to challenge.

“It’s not what the right to food is about, it’s not what feeding people is about. It’s just an emergency tool which is what you would do after a war. But then you cannot implement that as a sustainable system in the long term.

“You wouldn’t treat a country that went through a war as a post-war country forever.”

The two reports released last week have brought together the ingredients for change. Now it is up to us all to heat them up and put them to policymakers in order to serve up a future where human rights are respected.

Image: UN

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