Policy making in food systems

By Food Systems Policy Hub Director Professor Bob Doherty, University of York; N8 AgriFood Academic Lead Professor Katherine Denby, University of York; Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds

In January 2021 the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its report ‘Making better policies for food systems’. Here three N8 AgriFood academics jointly review its findings and respond on behalf of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub.

It has become something of a truism in food policy to describe food as constituting a ‘system’ (Doherty et al, 2019; Ericksen, 2008; Kneen, 1993 ; Sobal et al., 1998 ; Tendall et al., 2015 ). Yet this concept is invoked far more often than actually applied satisfactorily. A notable exception is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) new report on Making Better Policies for Food Systems which was presented by the OECD at our recent N8 Policy AgriFood Policy Hub webinar. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental ] sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: How to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer.

Taking a genuinely food systems approach (see Figure 1) is the first step incorporating all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, such as food security, availability, utilization, safety, access, environmental outcomes, livelihoods and of course food waste. In addition, the system also includes the socioeconomic and environmental drivers – the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance and the effects of their activities on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the forward and backward feedback loops, trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences among system activities.

Setting policy in the food system is complex as we source food on different geographical and temporal scales, and from thousands of producers (570 million farmers globally). 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 just to name a few. So what can policy makers learn from the OECD report?

First, the Making Better Policies for Food Systems report outlines the shortcomings and associated negative costs of our current food system including dietary ill health which is responsible for one in five deaths globally, 73% of all global deforestation, 80% of biodiversity loss and 21-37% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, 570 million farmers are reliant on the food system and in many countries is a key economic sector, for example in the UK food and drink manufacture is the largest manufacturing sector at £120 billion employing 4.3 million people.

Second, the report shows that good policymaking needs to be coherent and should consider the interlinkages between food security/nutrition, environment and livelihoods and potential spill over impacts of an individual policy into other parts of the system. For example, incentivising the
production of more fruit and vegetables in the UK to facilitate improvements in dietary health requires a multi-policy framework and should consider:

  • Demand side interventions, public information, digital interventions to encourage fruit and
    vegetable consumption which is affordable
  • Firmer regulations e.g. on promotion of unhealthy foods
  • Fiscal measures such as taxes on unhealthy foods or incentives for fruit and vegetable promotion
  • Preferential Business loans for new innovative companies focused on interventions to transform to a healthy food system for people and planet

The N8 Food Systems Policy Hub recommends we should also consider any implications for resource use in production, e.g. increased demand for water and chemical inputs, the need for skills and training in horticulture coupled with stimulating via favourable business loans new food business models aiming to supply more healthy produce into current food desert locations. The pandemic has provided a window of opportunity to initiate change as the importance of dietary health has been amplified. This coherent policy making requires increased collaboration across government between Defra, BEIS, the Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amongst others.

Third, creating policy coherence is not easy and in some areas there is friction on debates regarding trade-offs e.g. between reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and productivity/livelihoods, and in the use of genome editing and ensuring the technology is used for public good. To manage this
friction it is important to prioritise balancing the different interests and engaging all stakeholders. Policy makers in these circumstances need to gather independent robust evidence, identify diverging interests which need reconciliation, identify differences in values which need creative solutions and also identify a range of policy options as ‘silver bullets’ are rarely available. Debates between conventional and alternative are not always helpful and more integrated approaches are required. Useful approaches in these contested policy areas include independent accountability mechanisms e.g. carbon budgets from the IPCC, guidelines, building new coalitions from stakeholders with differing values coupled with the role of innovation. There is also a growing need for deliberative approaches such as public dialogues and citizen assemblies to develop societal consensus when tackling complex policy decisions.

It is clear that the food system needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and requires a range of policies which reduce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use and promote green fertiliser use e.g. cover crops and leys, carbon profiling of farms to promote carbon sequestration, low emissions slurry technology, and new regulations on manure management. Animal products provide an important source of protein to consumers globally, with low intakes associated with malnutrition and health consequences (FAO 2018). They also represent a significant source of income on a global scale, representing 40% of the global value of agricultural output worldwide. However, there is a recognised need to address the key issue of greenhouse gas emissions in these production systems, particularly for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo) but also, albeit to a lesser extent, for monogastric species (pigs, poultry). The global scale of the issue is significant: approximately one third of the earth’s surface is used either for grazing, or for feed-crop production for livestock (Herrero et al 2013). There is no single identified ‘silver bullet’ to fix these issues. Instead, the multifaceted perspectives on, priorities for, and values surrounding the livestock sector mean there are multiple alternate versions of solutions for healthy, sustainable future livestock production systems. Examples include farming approaches that move towards greater circularity in production economies and integration of crop-livestock systems offer one avenue to driving down emissions as
well as improving soil health, and water and air quality. Other key solutions could lie in genetic selection and breeding for methane reduction, finding alternative, efficient sources of protein for animal diets, and reducing losses through endemic disease. Reflecting the multitude of approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly, improving the environmental footprint of the livestock sector will require the support of a network of interlinking and complementary policies; there are numerous examples of such a multi-levered policy innovations being adopted in a range of different countries.

A thriving and innovative plant breeding sector is critical for maintaining crop yield gains made over the last 50 years in the face of climate change and the dynamic nature of pests and diseases (enhanced by changing climate and international trade). New traits are also needed, for example, for new farming systems, to help reduce GHG emissions from livestock or to extend growing seasons. Genome editing offers the potential to develop traits more quickly than conventional plant breeding and help address a number of challenges in the UK food system including environment, nutrition and
livelihood goals but policy changes are required to drive use of the technology for public good. The costs associated with current regulatory processes for genome-edited crops mean only “blockbuster” economic traits in major arable crops are likely to progress, despite the importance of fruit and vegetables in healthy diets and a realisation of the need to increase UK consumption of fruit and veg, and benefits of growing more fruit and vegetables within the UK. Different genome editing approaches carry different environmental and food safety risks. Many traits can be tackled with genome editing without incorporation of foreign DNA (resulting in an outcome that could be achieved with conventional breeding, albeit more slowly) and specific approaches need to be
distinguished both in policy-making, risk assessment and public information.

The OECD report provides some excellent international and UK examples of how we can expand the range of different tools for more coherent policy making in food systems. From the comprehensive citizens involvement in the development of the Canadian Food policy and its food systems council, the Future generations act in Wales where policy making decisions take into account the wellbeing of future generations, the Nutrient Score labelling system in France and Spain, farmer incentives for carbon sequestration in New Zealand and food in all policies by the London Food Board just to name a few. It’s clear our collaborative interdisciplinary food systems work across N8 AgriFood provides an important foundation for supporting policy makers in developing food system policy interventions. To this end, we launched the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy hub in November 2020 to tackle these crucial food system policy challenges.

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Improved agricultural innovation with farmer co-development

By Dr Thomas McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Engineer, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester

By recognising farmers’ knowledge and including them in the innovation process, rather than simply treating them as end testers, a more effective and efficient innovation route can be created.

The IKnowFood project

Funded by the Global Food Security Programme, the IKnowFood project aims to develop an improved and unified understanding of food system resilience through four research themes. Within this, theme one aims to identify new methods that could build the innovation knowledge and skills of farmers, in addition to creating technologies that are more fit for purpose within a farm context.

On-farm innovation is broadly seen as a one-sided process. Individuals and organisations separate to the farm create new and more effective technologies or procedures. These innovations are then checked and validated before being passed onto the farmers, who then use or action them in their day-to-day operations. What the innovation should do, what its success criteria are, and the majority of its features, are determined out of the context of the farm. This is beneficial from an innovation standpoint, as new innovations are not constrained by current practices or set-ups. Additionally, experts can deploy specialist knowledge to the farm through the innovation itself.

The problem with this model, however, is that the domain knowledge of farmers, both in terms of their agricultural and day-to-day operations, is not recognised or used. There is little opportunity for the farmers’ knowledge to contribute towards the innovation. This reduces both the likelihood of innovation adoption, due to the innovation not fitting into the farming context and results in innovations being identified as flawed at a later stage, which in turn is an inefficient use of resources. No two innovations are the same, but to not incorporate farmers into the innovation process until the point at which the innovation is largely complete, misses out on a potentially more direct and effective path.

The co-creation method

In order to involve farmers from the inception of an idea through to the testing of an on-farm innovation, we met with two groups of farmers over three years. These groups were based in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders. Each group had meetings with us independent of the other until the final year when they came together for a joint meeting to share and demonstrate what they had developed.

The meetings were conducted in three phases:

1. Mutual understanding and trust-building
2. Ideation
3. Testing and validation

All meetings had a facilitator and a research engineer present to represent the research team, with external specialists occasionally being invited to answer specific points previously raised by the farmers.

The first phase of mutual understanding saw us meet three times with each group of farmers to better understand them, their farms and how they operated. The farmers equally developed their understanding of how research is conducted and how new technologies and procedures are created. In addition to the cohesive benefits this stage brought, it was necessary to create a different, more balanced power dynamic, compared to what the farmers were used to. Later on in the process, one of the farmers reflected and said “I think it’s really nice and sort of strange that somebody’s made something for us as opposed to accepting whatever we usually have to purchase or get. It’s a totally different way around of thinking”.

With a shared understanding and recognition of domain knowledge, the ideation stage saw both groups create, list and prioritise issues that were pain points during farming. Some of these issues couldn’t be addressed, but after iterating over four meetings, we had a shortlist of innovations that could be created within the time available, would work from a technical perspective and would operate within the context of the farm. Rather than reaching from academia to the farm, we had met in the middle, identifying innovations that had been sense checked from both sides.

The innovations

In total six innovations were identified and progressed, with two independent issues, (one from each group of farmers) having the same root cause and so being addressed by the same innovation. The overlapping issues related to recording large amounts of livestock data, but being unable to surface the basic, useful information outdoors, such as recurring lameness, animal weights and treatments. This resulted in farmers collecting detailed livestock information, recording it in software, before re-recording ‘in-field’ livestock data on paper notes. These paper notes then became their main reference when outdoors. Apart from double data entry, these paper notes were also prone to being damaged, lost or out of date, leading to a significant amount of time being lost.

To address the problem, we created a simple application that ran on the farmer’s phones. This application records written notes and associates them with a keyword, such as an animal’s ear tag number. Simply typing in the animal’s tag number then recalls all the notes made by anyone on the farm about that animal. This provides a way to create backed-up, synchronised and easily accessible ad-hoc notes across the farm. These notes can also be easily copied from the application to the desired database, saving time transcribing paper notes.

The second application based innovation was centred around lone worker safety. During discussions, it became evident that lone working was a known and significant risk, and that it remained largely unmitigated in some scenarios. Solutions had been trialled, but none were found to be appropriate for their needs. They either didn’t work effectively due to human error or had been designed for other sectors.

One of these scenarios was lone working with livestock, late at night, in the sheds and outbuildings. The farmers had trialled solutions designed for the energy sector, but these typically required a GPS signal that could not be acquired inside a building. Others required the user to manually check-in and out, but due to the hours and workload, users often forgot and either worked unprotected or triggered false alarms.

The innovation developed to address this was the Lone Worker Safety (LWS) application. This application detects when a farmer is in an area of potential harm and automatically monitors them to make sure they are okay. Should they become stationary for too long and not respond to the audible alarms and notifications, the application sends out emergency messages to predetermined contacts that are in a position to assist.

The alarm can be manually triggered and there are numerous settings to accommodate many on-farm activities allowing farmers to customise it for their situation. It has been designed to be simple to use and only requires an Android phone and a Wi-Fi hub, with the Wi-Fi hub not needing an internet connection of its own. The Wi-Fi hub is first set-up in the lone working area, when the user’s phone then connects to the hub, the phone determines it is in the lone working area triggering it to automatically start monitoring the user. When the user then leaves the area, the opposite occurs, triggering the phone to stop its safety monitoring. We are in the final stages of making the LWS application available on the Google Play Store so that farmers far beyond the groups involved with the IKnowFood project can benefit.

Our aim is to demonstrate that when farmers are involved in on-farm innovations, as co-developers rather than end testers, very real issues can be overcome with components as available as phones and old Wi-Fi hubs. If farmers were involved in co-development much more widely, we believe that they could make a significant contribution to agricultural innovation.

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What to expect from UK agrifood trade policy after the Brexit transition

By Professor Fiona Smith, Professor of International Economic Law, University of Leeds, and N8 AgriFood Chair in Agrifood Regulation

With the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, there are four emerging trends in UK trade policy that have implications for agrifood.

On 29th October, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, delivered a speech at Chatham House in which she set out the UK Government’s vision for new independent trade. The UK Government intends to determine a path independent from the EU which will focus on “neither sacrificing core values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the environment, nor economic opportunities”. The speech was short on specifics and a full trade strategy document is expected. For now, it is possible to identify four emerging trends in UK trade policy that are relevant for the agrifood sector.

1. “Free and fair trade” will be at the core of UK trade policy going forward

The UK’s agrifood tariffs (import taxes), as set out in the UK’s Global Tariff (UKGT), will take effect on 1st January 2021. These tariffs will apply to imports from countries with which the UK does not have a trade deal. The UKGT largely replicates the EU’s agrifood tariffs at present, with some simplification on 10% of all agrifood tariffs.

This emphasis on free trade might signal an ambition (at least in the Department of International Trade) to gradually reduce those tariffs over time to coincide with UK farmers adjusting to the new market conditions in terms of the UK’s new trade relationship with the EU, as well as the changes to farm support set out in the Agriculture Act 2020, which came into force on 11th November. There is no indication of such a move yet, and certainly any changes in that direction should take into account what impact further agrifood tariff liberalisation might have on the UK’s farmers’ competitiveness.

2. Trade policy will be values driven

The UK Government has made it clear on several occasions that it intends to retain existing high food quality, food safety and environmental standards for domestically produced and imported agrifood products. In November, Liz Truss strengthened this commitment by placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) on a statutory footing.

The TAC will now produce an annual report evaluating the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each trade deal signed by the UK after the end of the transition period on 31st December, though its current remit over environmental provisions will be removed.

Whilst the TAC’s new statutory powers will head off concerns that the dreaded chorine washed chicken is headed for UK plates, it is less certain that the same kind of scrutiny will exist for concerns about pesticide residues. It should be noted though that the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has already indicated it intends to carry out detailed scrutiny of the impact of the UK’s new trade agreements on food quality, food safety and environmental standards. As a consequence, concerns about environmental protection can be raised before the EFRA Committee in oral or written evidence instead.

3. The UK will champion a return to a rules-based trading system under the World Trade Organization (WTO)

The WTO has experienced headwinds of its own in recent times, so the UK’s leadership on WTO reform will be welcomed by many WTO members. WTO rules did not prevent the UK-China trade war and the consequential effects for US-China agrifood trade. In July 2018, the Chinese imposed a 25% retaliatory tariff on imports of US soy, resulting in a 75% drop in US soy exports to China between 2017 and 2018. US exports of wheat to China also declined by 90% and dairy exports were reduced by 30% during the same period. There was some trade diversion as US farmers sought new markets, but trade patterns remain difficult to predict. The dispute is ongoing. These market distortions make it difficult for companies operating within global value chains on a ‘just in time’, rather than ‘just in case’ supply model, to accurately predict agrifood trade flows.

The UK’s leadership in the WTO on these and other issues might help unlock some of the WTO’s current institutional challenges. Negotiations to change the WTO’s rules to accommodate trade policies designed to combat the effects of climate change on agrifood production are stymied. President Trump blocked the appointment of the front runner candidate, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to be the new WTO Director General in October. She was to be the first woman, and the first African to take on the role. She is a strong advocate for WTO regulatory reform that recognises the link between trade and environment, as well as the need to reform the rules on agricultural subsidies and export restrictions. President-elect Biden’s new trade policy focus is yet to be announced, but it is hoped he will withdraw the US objection to the new WTO Director General appointment, and he will also enable some movement on changes to the multilateral trade rules.

4. “Friends and family first”

The UK intends to channel 80% of all its trade through bespoke trade agreements by 2022. This is an ambitious target. As of mid-December, the UK has concluded 27 trade agreements with 55 countries. The number of agreements signed so far is impressive. These are slightly amended versions of existing agreements entered into by the EU that the UK benefited from during its EU membership, so there is no substantial change to the UK trading position with these countries.

Liz Truss made it clear in her Chatham House speech that as far as wholly new trade agreements are concerned, the UK Government intends to prioritise negotiations with “longstanding allies and nations who share [the UK’s] values”. Consequently, negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a UK-EU deal will be prioritised. While the UK-EU trade deal lurches ever closer to the 31st December cliff edge without signs of a conclusion (at the time of writing), there is more hope for the US, Australia and New Zealand negotiations.

Indeed, there is a draft text “at an advance stage of preparation” for the UK-US deal, which includes an ambition to increase market access for Scottish salmon and whisky exports to the US market. The US election has slowed progress. President-elect Biden has made it clear that the US will not enter into a trade deal with the UK unless the UK resolves how it will achieve frictionless trade across the Northern Irish border. Whether the UK-EU agreement concluded on the 9th December that exempts tariffs on 98% of goods travelling across the Northern Irish border and reduces some border checks will allay President-elect Biden’s fears, remains to be seen. The UK-Australia and UK-New Zealand trade negotiations are less advanced. The second round of trade negotiations with Australia occurred in October this year and the UK only issued a formal invitation to New Zealand to enter into negotiations in July.

Where does this leave the UK trade policy after the Brexit transition?

The UK is the first major country to leave a large trade agreement with its close geographic neighbours, as well as the first to reintroduce trade restrictions. As such, the UK is writing the rulebook. There is no precedent for how the UK should craft its trade policy, particularly in relation to agrifood. Despite the political rhetoric, the initial phases of UK trade policy have focused on renegotiating many trade agreements the UK already benefitted from while an EU Member State. Rollover of these existing benefits after the end of the transition period on 31st December 2020 is not automatic, as every trade agreement is the product of a negotiation between two (or more) states.

Many of these countries – like Japan, with whom the UK struck a deal in October – are keen to renegotiate market access commitments with the UK that they had to concede to the EU. The UK seems to be pivoting away from Europe and towards Asia too. Liz Truss has already signalled the UK’s intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in September this year. Whether membership of the CPTPP delivers new markets particularly for meat cuts not eaten by UK consumers, is currently unknown. The significant distances over which goods must be transported and the costs of doing so may deter some UK exporters despite the existence of a trade agreement. And, it should be mentioned that the UK will be negotiating these trade agreements with significant headwinds, including the impact of COVID-19; the call for reshoring of agrifood production; and a shift from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’ supply chain models.

Whether the UK can become “a major voice in global trade” once again remains to be seen. What is clear, is that the ambition to pivot the UK to being a hub for trade to create more export opportunities, provides new possibilities for UK agrifood business in the medium-to-long term.

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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.


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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