The economic crisis and food insecurity

By James Coe, Senior Policy Advisor, University of Liverpool

The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that the government has more latitude for fiscal intervention than had previously been assumed.

Support through furlough, business loans, schemes for the self-employed and targeted sector schemes has opened up a new sense that the government has significant capacity to maintain more income, jobs and livelihoods than the market would otherwise. Therefore, in the current economic circumstances we collectively face, there is an understanding that preserving the social safety net requires greater intervention and flexibility than was possible through previous benefit transfer schemes, particularly as rates of unemployment and business failure continue to grow.

In combination, this sets an expectation that the government will not only do the right thing for the economy in the abstract, but will make concrete social interventions to maintain a minimum standard of life. As job losses pile up, the economy stutters, and more people access government schemes and services, there is very little political clamour for a smaller government. Indeed, there is a near yearning for a compassionate form of governance. The capacity to intervene in the economy at large also means there is an expectation the government will act on a more targeted basis in the case of free school meals.

All the while, as the debate over how to provide food in the face of this unfurling emergency continues, the question of why it is necessary receives less attention. The structural causes of food insecurity can be longstanding through low income, inability to access sufficient state financial support or chronic ill health. Equally, there can be sudden changes in circumstance such as loss of income, accidents or unexpected costs. There is therefore a dual imperative. A need to tackle the structural causes of food poverty and an urgent need to provide food for those who cannot access it.

As the Food Aid Network write: “So, while we press on to fill an ever-widening gap with food parcels we must keep reminding our government that, of course, sticking plasters are no solution to poverty.

“The COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the immense inequalities in our society, but funding the distribution of more emergency food parcels will never prove a real solution for those people deserving the dignity to be able to afford to buy food for themselves. And worse, this default reaction could very well embed food banking into our society for good.”

Structural

The government does not currently measure food insecurity, but a question has been added to the Family Resource Survey, which will report this data in 2021. Until then, we have unofficial counts with food banks assessing changing demand for food parcels. The Social Metrics Commission (SMC), who are compiling such data note, “SMC’s analysis of official data finds those in hardship are more likely to have poor health and lack qualifications than those above the poverty line.” In a separate report, they further note “those employed prior to the [COVID-19] crisis and already in the deepest forms of poverty have been most heavily impacted by the economic fallout.”

Therefore, within the higher education sector part of the work of alleviating food poverty is enhancing and growing the work to tackle the root causes of economic disparities. As the national financial picture worsens, the work of outreach and widening participation becomes more central. Firstly, this is because attending higher education is an effective route to increase income, but secondly, it is also a temporary way out of worklessness at a time when the economy is depressed. If this is to be most successful, this individual benefit should not come at the cost of an economy which builds in wider economic disparities for those who do not obtain a degree.

Local economies

Secondly, as we’ve all seen on Twitter there is now daily reporting of which companies have done well by their staff, customers and communities. As with after the last financial crash, we may well see a focus on local suppliers and supply chains, both as symbolic gestures of solidarity but also, as a tangible measure to support recovery. Only recently, Homebaked, a local bakery based in Anfield, talked about how this may force a revaluation of community endeavour. Universities, as huge purchasers, may take time to reflect where we buy and our criteria for doing so, as a means of bolstering local economies, and in turn alleviating poverty on our doorstep.

Ongoing crisis

Of course, while these are important interventions, we have a role in thinking about the unfurling crisis. Universities provide ongoing financial support to their students in terms of bursaries. These are likely to come under more strain, and given they rely on annualised student finance data, are less nimble in responding to the emergent crisis than government support. Therefore, a clear measure we can consider is delving into our data on bursary access, correlating that with public data to see the size of the possible gap, and planning for an increase in need for greater hardship funding. This is particular crucial at a time when university finances are under pressure.

Secondly, it’s likely students through students’ unions are already volunteering in food banks and other community outreach projects. Liverpool Guild of Students, both supports food banks through donating non-perishable food from students as part of their Leave Liverpool Tidy project, and has coordinated information on where students can provide support. Signposting and promoting these initiatives could be impactful in growing the support they can provide.

The long-term role for universities

The university sector is clearly going through significant challenge and change. In the long-term, the factors which cause food poverty are multi-variated, difficult and beyond the reach of higher education to solve alone. Practically, the work of the likes of University College London and the Child Poverty Action Group demonstrates how we can analyse the causes and impact the debate on food poverty. Civically, working with local leaders and policymakers to share data, expertise and evidence, can only support effective intervention. Locally, understanding the manifestation of the COVID-19 economic crisis on our door steps is a key to supporting our own students during this difficult time.

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Our vision for the Food Systems Policy Hub

By Professor Bob Doherty, Professor of Marketing at York Management School, University of York, and Food Systems Policy Hub Director

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub brings together the interdisciplinary strengths of the N8 AgriFood platform in food systems research, thinking and collaboration.

Our ambition is to be a leading interdisciplinary policy platform for food systems research at global, national, regional and local levels. We’re establishing the Policy Hub as an important go to place for independent evidence, expertise and thought leadership for policy communities working in the food system.

We bring together the expertise of 8 different universities on one unique research project and work in collaboration with industry, government, international bodies (e.g. FAO etc.), the European Union, national governments, regional/local government, the third sector (including private standard bodies e.g. Fairtrade International) and civil society.

Why now?

The shocks experienced by the global food system are unprecedented. Climate change, COVID-19, dietary health crisis and geopolitical pressures are combining to create both ripple and cascade impacts on the food system. Given this, there is a real need for a new partnership at the science-policy-practice interface to work in collaboration with policymakers across sectors to tackle evidence gaps.

In addition to this, Brexit is posing its own challenges. As the UK leaves the EU, there is raft of key policy initiatives on the agenda – the 25-year Environment Plan, Agricultural Bill, New Environment Bill and the forthcoming National Food Strategy Review, just to name a few.

These policy changes will also impact on private and third sector organisations, not just government departments. With this challenge in mind, N8 AgriFood has decided to launch the Food Systems Policy Hub to respond to this challenge.

Why food systems?

Much is expected from our global food system to meet the challenges of a growing population. However, if we simply produce more food using the current agrifood system, we will require 120% more water, 42% more land and this production alone will lead to a 2oC rise in global temperature. Put simply, we do not have the resources and we cannot afford the environmental damage.

It’s not possible for us to meet our food needs through a business-as-usual approach. Instead, we require strategies for adaptation and transformation. Our needs must be set within the context of a growing consensus that our food system is increasingly vulnerable, with rising environmental risks from climate change, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and antimicrobial resistance among others.

Environmental risks are coupled with rising socioeconomic risks of increasing food poverty, a mounting health crisis from poor diets and poor working conditions for many employed in agrifood supply chains. These problems provide an immense challenge for policymakers – one where a food systems approach can help.

The food system incorporates all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, including food availability, utilisation, safety, access, quality and of course waste.

The system also captures the socioeconomic and environmental drivers, including the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance, and the effects of their activity on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the feedback loops, trade-offs/dilemmas and synergies among system activities. It’s fair to say it’s quite a complex picture.

Setting policy in the food system poses quite a challenge as we source food from thousands of producers across different geographical and temporal scales. In the UK, we are experiencing a time of change and opportunity, with a series of key policy initiatives including the 25-year Environment Plan, new Agricultural bill and new National Food Strategy.

Food systems thinking enables a more coherent interdisciplinary approach. It allows identification of the key interactions, stakeholders and points of intervention, as well as any trade-offs/dilemmas, synergies and unintended consequences of interventions. It provides a platform for a joined-up approach to food research and policymaking across industry, government, the third sector and civil society. Using food systems thinking ensures a more holistic approach and avoids silo working.

Why N8?

Responsibility for policy within the food system is distributed across different ministries and departments. There is now a growing recognition that effective change requires us to consider the overarching food system.

N8 AgriFood is in an ideal position to do just this by drawing upon our interdisciplinary expertise across the N8 institutions to bring valuable contributions to the policy community in public policy, business practice and beyond. We have been working together for the last five years and have developed effective modes of interaction.

We can provide a single platform and contact point to bring this knowledge and expertise together, which can in turn help bridge evidence gaps for policy teams, provide thought leadership and offer insights from an independent perspective. We also have a number of N8 academics who are seconded into government, parliament and business working on food system challenges and as a result have experience of how policy and evidence teams work.

What can we provide?

Due to the wide-ranging and influential expertise and resources built by the N8, we are in a position to provide bespoke policy work in a range of organisational settings. This expertise includes training in food systems thinking and methods, thought leadership and horizon scanning, food systems commissioned work and researching evidence gaps, as well as convening policy forums such as citizen assemblies, farmer learning groups and public dialogues.

In conclusion

Despite the fact that the food system faces wide-ranging challenges, through working together and developing policy based on research evidence, we can tackle them and make positive social and environmental changes that will benefit generations to come. This is the driving force behind the Food Systems Policy Hub and it’s essential that our interdisciplinary food systems research has real-world impact.

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School food has a proven track record in reducing child food poverty

By Dr Charlotte Evans, School of Food Science and Nutrition, Faculty of Environment, University of Leeds

Recently Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, took on the government again, with a petition to provide school meal vouchers in school holidays, which has now been signed by more than a million people.

The vote was defeated by 322 to 261. This was a disappointing result given the long successful history of school food policies in this country, particularly for those on lower incomes. Affordable, high quality school food is important for all children, as well as offering a way to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, improve educational attainment and reduce inequalities. It is cheap at the price.

School food in the UK has a long history

School food programmes have been an important aspect of government policy since education was made mandatory. In Victorian times charities provided food to children in poverty and then later free and nutritious school food was provided nationally to ensure pupils were fit for war or employment[1]. Children grew taller and were better nourished and standards for school meals were introduced. After many decades of subsidy and standards, support for school food (together with other services) all but disappeared with the new Thatcher government in 1979. Standards were dropped and school meals became much more dependent on market forces. Young children were customers and were regularly served pizza, turkey twizzlers and chips at school. In 2006 after years of discussion, and as a result of the rise in childhood obesity since the 1980s, new mandatory standards were introduced. This was strongly supported by the TV chef Jamie Oliver whose campaign for better quality school meals included creating memorable scenes of carnage as he put all the unsavoury ingredients of a turkey twizzler into a blender in front of shocked 14 year olds.

The nutritional quality of school food has undoubtedly improved in the last 15 years and the food based standards are overseen by the School Food Plan[2]. Additionally, the universal infant free school meals have been introduced for 4-6 year olds in England. However, the number of older children having a school meal remains low, partly due to the cost, and is less than 50% in many schools with the majority of children having a packed lunch which is typically poor quality[3].

Free school meals don’t reach everyone they could help

The number of children in food poverty remains high in this country and not all of those children in low income households are eligible for free school meals. Whilst the proportion of children in poverty is estimated at between 30 and 40%, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals is much lower at 18%.[4]. Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated what was an already desperate situation in terms of the extent of children in poverty in the UK. This was summed up in the scathing report by the United Nations Rapporteur on extreme poverty [5]. Professor Philip Alston reported in his statement that “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” There are currently alarming increases in the number of households claiming Universal Credit and the number of families using food banks. Poverty negatively affects children’s health with higher levels of obesity seen in children living in more deprived households. Tragically, these differences in obesity prevalence between children in households with lowest and highest income have grown from 9% to 15% over 10 years[6]. Good quality school food can help tackle these high obesity rates.

Investments in school food improves health, equity and community

There are signs that the government may consider taking further action and extending the reach of school food in deprived communities to reduce food poverty. The recommendations recently put forward in the National Food Strategy, commissioned by the current government and led by Henry Dimbleby, state that free school meals should be extended to all those families claiming Universal Credit which would cover 30% of school children. The cost of this would be approximately £670million, a small fraction of the amount currently spent on obesity related healthcare. There is ample evidence from many countries across the globe that school food programmes are beneficial in improving education and health, and are highly cost effective. High and middle income countries where school food is free for all or heavily subsidised such as Sweden, Japan and Nigeria have shown that investment in school food leads to improvements in children’s health and equity, as well as benefitting the wider community (World Bank).

High quality and affordable school food successfully improves children’s diets and reduces inequalities. Feeding more children at school and tackling holiday hunger is therefore a priority to reduce food poverty.

The failure to secure holiday time support for those eligible for free school meals was disheartening and severely misjudged the mood in this country. Many united behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign; including hard hit councils, restaurants and cafes who offered free food for families during the October half term holiday.

References

1. Evans, C. and C. Harper, A history and review of school meal standards in the UK. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2009. 22(2): p. 89-99.
2. Department of Education. The School Food Plan. 2014; Available from: http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/.
3. Evans, C.E.L., et al., A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open, 2020. 10(1): p. e029688.
4. Taylor, C., The Reliability of Free School Meal Eligibility as a Measure of Socio-Economic Disadvantage: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study in Wales. British Journal of Educational Studies, 2018. 66(1): p. 29-51.
5. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom. 2018.
6. Public Health England (PHE), Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England – 2020 [NS]. 2020.

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