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Food fights: Putting dignity in the right to food

The food parcel received by one parent in East Renfrewshire. Credit: @FixFreeMeals/Twitter

Food fights: Putting dignity in the right to food

Just as the row over free school meals had died down, a new national lockdown was announced and tensions spiked again about how best to feed children as they returned to home learning. Frustrated parents across the UK took to social media, sharing images of the paltry food boxes provided.

At first, Scotland appeared to get off lightly as most councils offer vouchers or cash payments in lieu of the meals. But then came the revelation that East Renfrewshire had been one such council providing food parcels which, a spokesperson later admitted, had “fallen short” of the standard expected.

One East Renfrewshire mum told Holyrood: “The food parcel I received was, in a word, insulting. The pack of rolls I received went out of date on the day I received them and were stale so couldn’t even be frozen. There was one tin of tuna to fill the rolls. The fruit was inedible and had to be binned.”

Another described the package as “degrading”. She added: “It’s just not good enough. Kids should have the choice. If they’re entitled to it, then why not give them the choice? Why not give the parents the choice what to offer to their children?”

That choice is an inherent part of the right to food written into international human rights treaties. It is about ensuring people can live with dignity.

And while dignity is central to Scottish Government policy on social security, the right to food is not recognised in Scots law. The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) have long been calling for this.

Having an institutional structure where people are dependent on foodbanks to access food is not sustainable and crucially does not deliver on a whole range of other rights

“There’s an expectation on governments who have signed up to the international treaties – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in this instance, which the British government has signed – that they then take those rights and make them accessible to people through the domestic courts and that increases the protections,” says Judith Robertson, chair of the SHRC.

“That has happened on the civil and political rights, you would see that reflected in the Human Rights Act, but it hasn’t happened in relation to economic, social and cultural rights. So, those protections are much weaker.”

Before the pandemic, the SHRC recommended the right to food be written into the Good Food Nation Bill. The difficulties families have faced since March has only strengthened the case.

Robertson adds: “In a context where people’s right to food is being threatened and is vulnerable, then actually having the right enshrined in law potentially gives people the opportunity to take a case against a public authority or against the state […] to say, you have an obligation to deliver against my rights and my rights are being breached because I’m not able to access food in a way that complies with my rights.”

The Scottish Government shied away from adding it to that Bill. Instead, ministers proposed any policy on food should “have regard to” international obligations.

Robertson says: “If the government doesn’t talk about the right to food in any kind of meaningful way, then people don’t know they have that right.”

But she remains hopeful the government will recognise the benefit of putting the right to food on a statutory footing. She is part of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, set up in 2019, tasked with creating a legal framework bringing together all human rights.

Enshrining rights is only one part of the equation. The other is delivery. Robertson explains enshrinement would really be intended “to shape the way policy is thought through and then delivered on the ground, from the get-go”.

The current answer to food insecurity throughout the UK is foodbanks. “But foodbank provision is not a sustainable way of enabling people to access a decent, secure food supply,” says Robertson.

She adds: “Having an institutional structure where people are dependent on foodbanks to access food is not sustainable and crucially, from our perspective, does not deliver on a whole range of other rights. It doesn’t deliver on the right to an adequate standard of living, because that’s actually crucial to delivering the right to food.”

But there are some examples across Scotland of alternatives. East Ayrshire Council runs a Dignified Food programme, which has seen 12 larders – soon to be 15 – set up throughout the region to meet the needs of local communities.

Mark Hunter, service manager for food and catering with the council, explains: “We put that together based on EU exit and the implications we may have had within the community should prices go up, should there be a lack of food coming in, and then it soon evolved, we moved into COVID in early 2020.”

The council bought additional freezer and fridge space to ensure there was additional food and worked with food poverty action groups on how to go about distributing it.

When coronavirus hit Scotland last year, the council was already on a good footing to open its community larders. They work on a pay-what-you-can basis, providing food to anyone who needs it through a self-referral system, with each community in East Ayrshire linked to at least one of the larders.

The plan is to keep them open even after the pandemic. Hunter says: “We knew there was an increase in demand in foodbanks [and] we still know there’s an increase due to the pandemic and changes in life circumstances.

“But the larders will continue. We’ll still support them, and we’ll still do what we’re doing. The whole point of that is for them to become sustainable, so they will become a small community shop, for want of a better word. [People] will pay what they can and because we are so rural, it works, because the community know the community.”

Meanwhile, a community group in Glasgow developed a slightly different model. Kinning Park Complex ran its food delivery service between April and August last year, providing 17 metric tons of food.

KPCafé manager Lindsey McGhie said: “We created this lovely pack full of organic local produce, as much as we could.

"One of the main things that we were really focused on was about food dignity. The way to do that was we would let them know what we had and we would exclude items they wouldn’t be able to use, we would buy particular items in bulk if we knew that they were needed, and we also offered what we called a request service, so they could tell us what they really, really needed or wanted, and we would try our best to fulfil that for every pack.”

Then towards the end of last year, the group was also able to provide supermarket vouchers of between £20 and £70 to families. “That’s a big thing for us, we were really glad we able to give them a really good amount of vouchers and were able to choose what they wanted for Christmas,” says McGhie.

Now the group has returned to a more familiar format with its café, which provides an answer to social isolation as well as hunger.

McGhie explains: “The café is a pre-booked, come-along, eat as much as you like, pick your shopping list for your grocery bag, and it’s a free service.”

Eventually the plan is to move back to a pay-what-you-can model, but for now it is able to offer its support for free with financial backing from the government, council and third sector. McGhie believes it has been so successful because the organisation took the time to consult with and understand the community they serve.

There’s lots of lessons to learn from COVID and actually we probably need to put time and energy into doing that

But different responses will be needed for different communities. And Robertson is clear central government must take the lead. She says: “From a strategic approach, the oversight of all these things, the understanding of issues like food deserts and where people are actually able to access food, that is the responsibility of the state.

“They may delegate that to a local authority, they may delegate that to whoever, that’s ok, so long as it’s done and the provision is put in place from a rights perspective, and actually built on the participation of people.”

She is emphatic about that last point, that any system must include people on the receiving end of support. She also suggests a cash-based approach is likely to be the most dignified response.

“People just want to be able to do what everybody else does in that respect, so that’s what’s dignified. It’s normal, it’s dignified, it’s acceptable, it’s culturally acceptable, it’s appropriate and crucially it gives people the choice to decide what food they want for themselves and their families,” she says.

For this reason, she welcomes the increase to the Scottish Welfare Fund, as well as the temporary uplift to Universal Credit. But does she think the right lessons have been learned from COVID about the right to food?

“I’m not sure. I think there’s lots of lessons to learn from COVID and actually we probably need to put time and energy into doing that. One of the things we’ve been calling for as a commission, and it’s been agreed, is that there will be a public inquiry.

“Obviously the scope and scale of that inquiry should encompass not just what’s happened to people who’ve contracted COVID, what’s happened in the hospitals, what’s happened in the care homes, what’s happened as the direct result of the disease, but what else has happened? The jobs lost, the household incomes plummeting, the access to food being really eroded in this time. Understanding that is a really important part of what happens next.”

As it stands, there is a gap between rhetoric and policy on food insecurity. It would not have been possible for councils across the UK to provide sub-standard food packages if there weren’t. As one of the mums from East Renfrewshire said: “The right to food has in no way been met here.”

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