A Government food strategy worthy of its name would help us at the till and the dinner table - Dan Jarvis

It was once said that “the French live to eat, the English eat to live”, and internationally, English food used to be the butt of many a joke. However, in recent years, we’ve seen a real renaissance. I’m proud that our country (and especially here in Yorkshire) produces food that is loved and revered around the world.

Amazing produce in our county can be found from the Rhubarb Triangle to Wensleydale and Whitby Harbour to the Peak District. We’re home to iconic brands like Henderson’s Relish in Sheffield, Fox’s Biscuits in Batley, and, of course, Yorkshire Tea in Harrogate. We also gave the world Yorkshire puddings. With our rich food culture, it’s only fitting that the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering is based in South Yorkshire.

All of us can enjoy Yorkshire’s fantastic produce if we ensure everyone has the right to good quality food at an affordable price. As a country, we should never take food security for granted – it’s a basic building block of life. However, with rising prices, access to affordable food is out of reach for a growing number of people. So, we must tackle three major challenges now before food insecurity spirals out of control.

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First is affordability. In one of the richest countries in the world, it’s shameful that there are people in full-time work who can barely afford the essentials, meaning food banks issued over two million emergency food parcels last year. It didn’t happen because of the cost-of-living crisis. On the contrary, inflation has only exacerbated an already dire situation as, between 2010 and 2019, foodbank usage rocketed by over a staggering 3,800 per cent. Action to reduce usage must aim to bring the number down to zero. The task is a lot tougher with food and drink inflation currently at a record 17.5 per cent. Caught between stagnant wages and rising prices, shoppers are really struggling.

Dan Jarvis. Picture: Chris EtchellsDan Jarvis. Picture: Chris Etchells
Dan Jarvis. Picture: Chris Etchells

The second challenge facing shoppers, and food security, is availability. Recent supermarket shortages show that an ample supply is not a given, whether it was eggs before Christmas or tomatoes earlier this year. Worse still, supermarkets are still behind the curve in stopping scandalous amounts of good food going to waste due to premature best-before dates and overly strict aesthetics. Wonky carrots deserve their place on our plates!

Like elsewhere, in Barnsley, we’re already tackling unnecessary waste head-on. I’ve seen the amazing work at Athersley Community Food Shop and the community fridges in Mapplewell and Staincross.

Pioneering projects run by local volunteers, for local people, these places are stocked with great produce taken off supermarket shelves because of corporate guidelines, rather than health and safety rules. With products sold at lower prices, or available for free, people who are struggling have more affordable options to choose from, and food waste is cut.

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This kind of big thinking is the only way we’ll tackle the third major challenge – sustainability. A long-term plan should guarantee food security for decades, but this just hasn’t happened.

The Government Food Strategy was published last year, but problems with food security have got worse, not better.

So, more than ever, we need a robust plan to strengthen food security, not least because there’s a whole host of interconnected reasons behind supply shortages and spiralling prices. The War in Ukraine severely disrupted the world’s grain supply, new trade arrangements with the EU have complicated fruit and veg imports, and the climate emergency means harvests vary wildly each year.

If the Government can’t get a grip on these issues, it must employ a bit of nous to work around them. Action is more difficult when the best guarantor of our food security is national self- sufficiency, but the National Farmers’ Union highlights that we now only produce 60 per cent of our domestic food consumption, down from 80 per cent in the 1980s. It’s absurd that we import potatoes from Cyprus – over 2,000 miles away. Our country coined the phrase ‘dig for victory’, but there’s much to do to live up to it again.

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A good start would be if the Government introduced a dedicated energy support package that keeps industrial greenhouses warm, did more to favour local producers supplying schools and hospitals, and ensured the seasonal workers plan for harvests attracts enough people for it to work.

The Government must also provide a credible response to a recent report by the Climate Change Committee that slams them for not doing enough to protect food security against the effects of the climate emergency.

While the situation is serious, there is still a clear path to quality and nutritious food being available and affordable for all. If the Government Food Strategy is worthy of its name, we need to start seeing benefits at the till and the dinner table.

Our nation expects the Government to guarantee such a basic necessity, especially as we now take more pride in the incredible food produced in our country. So let’s fix food security, and protect the right for everyone not just to eat, but to eat well.

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central.