Enshrine 'right to food' in law, cross-party group of MPs urge

Removing the minimum spend for supermarket deliveries and enshrining in law a “right to food” could help those hit by poverty during the coronavirus pandemic, a cross-party group of MPs has said.

The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called on the Government to appoint a minister for food security to ensure families can put food on their tables in the aftermath of the pandemic and during the fallout from Brexit.

And the group said there were concerns that the true extent to which people were going hungry was not known as data was not collected on the issue.

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“Without proper data, the Government cannot effectively tackle the causes and consequences of food insecurity,” a report released today said.

File photo of stocks of food at a food bank. Photo: PA

And although it recognised steps had been taken, it urged ministers to publish an annual report on food security.

The fear was shared by Nigel Currey, deputy manager of the Selby Food Bank.

Mr Currey said that although demand for his specific food bank had decreased, this was due to a variety of “pop-up food banks” emerging to help the community during the pandemic.

And he said there was scant data on who needed help, and why.

He said: “Our concern is even though demand has gone down it does not mean the need is not there.”

There are 5.9m adults in the UK who experienced food poverty in the six months up to February and 1.7m children living in food-insecure households, according to the EFRA Committee report released today.

“Ministers have mobilised their departments to support vulnerable people to access food during the pandemic, but this impetus needs to be sustained,” the MPs said.

To aid this, the MPs called for the introduction of a food security minister who would be backed by “robust” cross-Government structures to ensure all relevant departments “prioritise the issue of food insecurity”.

The Government should also consult on how the right to food could be introduced in England, the report urges, in a bid to “drive action on food insecurity” across Whitehall.

Tory MP Neil Parish, who chairs the Commons committee, said the efforts to feed the most vulnerable people during the Covid-19 crisis should “set a precedent” for the future.

Mr Parish said: “During the Covid crisis, different Government departments pulled together to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society were fed. This should set a precedent.

“We have a duty to ensure that access to enough nutritious food is a fundamental right for everyone in the UK, which is why, for the second time in a year, our committee urges the Government to appoint a new minister specifically to address food security.”

The report also said that because those who had to shield during the pandemic were encouraged to use supermarket delivery slot, those retailers - who the committee noted had seen profits during lockdowns - should be publicly asked by the Government to lower the minimum spend needed or their delivery charges.

It comes as members of the National Education Union (NEU) reported how some children had gone to school with holes in their shoes and without winter coats, while others have been left worried about when they will get their next meal due to families struggling financially amid the pandemic.

A survey of more than 10,000 NEU members suggests the majority (52 per cent) of respondents are working with intakes where more than a fifth are considered to be economically disadvantaged.

More than two in three (68 per cent) say the Government should reduce child poverty to support the recovery of pupils who have been affected by the pandemic.

The intervention comes after the Government was forced into feeding children who would usually be entitled to free school meals during holidays.

One respondent said: “I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the Free School Meals vouchers email hadn’t arrived. It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house.

“I will never forget the panic in that girl’s voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It is now beyond doubt that child poverty is on the rise. The effects can last a lifetime, and young people have one chance in education.”

In June, the Government did a U-turn after footballer Marcus Rashford called for ministers to reconsider their decision not to extend the existing food voucher system into the summer holidays, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitting it was “the right thing to do”.

A further £170m was committed in November to extending the scheme through until Christmas, with Mr Johnson phoning the 23-year-old to talk through the move.

Mr Johnson would later call some of the food parcels sent to families “disgraceful” after Mr Rashford, who was made an MBE in the delayed 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, highlighted the poor-quality provision via social media.