A group of MPs from every major political party has warned that food insecurity in the UK is “likely to get worse before it gets better”, and has urged the government to appoint a special minister to address the rising number of people facing hunger.
The call is one of a number of recommendations made following an inquiry into COVID-19 and Britain’s food supply from the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs select committee — a group set up to scrutinise government policy in these areas.
While the committee’s report, published on July 30, commended the government for managing to keep supermarkets stocked during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and said some schemes went well — such food aid delivery to the most vulnerable people — it criticised some of the government’s actions.
The MPs noted that around 4.9 million adults and 1.7 million children are currently food insecure in the UK. Food insecurity is defined by the UN as lack of physical and economic access to sufficient nutritious food.
“The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity for millions of people in the UK”, the inquiry concluded, adding that issues around food security were only just beginning.
Furthermore, the financial downturn caused by COVID-19 has correlated with a “shocking” spike in the reliance on food banks and food aid during the pandemic, the report’s authors wrote, with food bank use doubling during lockdown.
Neil Parish, a Conservative MP and chair of the committee leading the inquiry, said: “Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a shocking spike in demand for food aid.”
“It is therefore essential that the government appoints a new minister for food security who will stop this issue falling between the cracks,” he added.
The report notes that food is the responsibility of lots of government departments, but no one minister in particular is focused on it.
It’s not the first time that the government has been told to create a new role like this to help tackle lack of access to food.
Back in January 2019, a group of MPs urged Theresa May, the former prime minister, to appoint a “minister for hunger” with a responsibility to support people in the UK who can’t afford to eat.
We need to ensure our #food supply system is more resilient to a second wave of #Covid19 after #Brexit.— Neil Parish MP (@neil_parish) July 30, 2020
I was on @BBCFarmingToday to launch the @CommonsEFRA Covid-19 & food supply report 👉https://t.co/1vuUZ8iwza
The Commons environmental audit committee — a group that examines the effectiveness of government policy on sustainable development — accused the government at the time of “turning a blind eye” to almost 2 million people in the UK who might be undernourished.
In the latest report, MPs said that a contributing factor to people running out of food were flaws in the voucher scheme issued after the UK’s lockdown was announced on March 23 — of £3 a day, or £15 a week per child, for families whose children would normally get free lunches at school.
For example, MPs said that as well as delays getting vouchers to people, there were limitations on where the vouchers could be spent which, the report says, didn’t consider where families on low incomes were likely to shop and what was available to them nearby.
Major supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s were signed up to the scheme, but more affordable discount supermarkets like Lidl, Aldi, or local grocery shops, were not, which led to confusion.
As well as having a minister with a watchful eye on food poverty and insecurity, the MPs said the government should consider enshrining a “right to food” in legislation to help bolster efforts to protect people from food poverty.
It suggests this would be a law that would in turn hold systems accountable, helping to support a “right to food” rather than undermine it. The report doesn’t offer detail on how that would work, but it does call for a consultation on the matter.
The committee also warned of threats to the UK’s food supply chain on the horizon, such as the potential of the UK to exit the European Union without a deal when the negotiations deadline passes on Dec. 31 2020 — and the impact of climate change on world food production.
“One factor that mitigated the impact of the pandemic on food supplies was that cross-border movement of food continued,” the report’s authors wrote, however “the government cannot be complacent that this will always be the case."
“Possible future crises triggered by climate change or a disorderly end to the Brexit transition period could pose potentially greater challenges,” the committee added.
In response, the government should shore up contingency planning for food supply chain disruption after Brexit, the MPs recommended.
They also critiqued “just in time supply chains” — a system that minimises the amount of produce kept in storage holds because it arrives in time for something to have run out of stock — which they deemed efficient but not necessarily resilient, and said the government should look at how reliance on them in future might affect supply.
Another recommendation is that the government does more to tackle food waste. The committee says that the food being wasted during the pandemic was “abhorrent” at a time of critical need.
The report says the best way to tackle this issue is to continue funding FareShare, a food distribution network that takes surplus food from supermarkets and gives it to charities, and possibly expand the network.
In response to the conclusions of the inquiry a government spokesperson told Sky News: "[We have] invested record levels of funding to help people get the food they need."
They added: "Our COVID-19 task force has also brought together expertise across government to tackle the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic and ensure those most vulnerable in our society are protected."
Clean Bandit x Global Citizen: House Party Against Hunger on August 8 will call on world leaders to step up to stop the COVID-19 crisis becoming a food crisis too. Join the campaign to tackle starvation by taking action here — and you could earn a meet and greet with the band.