Ten years of austerity undoubtedly magnified Covid19’s shock to the food system, a unique roundtable bringing together national and local experts on food insecurity agreed this week. The discussion, part of the West Midlands Co-operative Taskforce, sought to bottom out what needs to be done in by the next Metro Mayor to deliver food justice.
What came through very strongly was the moral outrage that every night in one of the richest countries of the world, people are going hungry and there is a moral imperative on politicians to deliver affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food for our communities.
Empty shelves defined the early weeks of the Covid crisis, but this distracts from the fundamental problem of too many people having too little money to adequately feed themselves and their families. At the heart of any regional response to food insecurity must be income maximisation: a commitment to the living wage, ensuring that those on benefits get every penny that they are entitled to, promoting existing schemes like Healthy Start.
Every participant detailed dramatic increases in demand for their services ranging from an 80% to a 500% increase for emergency food parcels. Grimly, the worst may still be to come with holiday hunger over the summer, a likely recession, and Brexit’s negative impact on food supply. Yet against this backdrop, there were surprising notes of optimism.
The West Midlands region contains and is near many farms, offering the possibility of strengthening local supply chains, which in turn could draw on local labour and have strong local economic multiplier effects. The number and range of organisations working in the community is legion and has grown rapidly with numerous Covid Support Groups emerging and existing organisations incorporating food supply as part of their repertoire. Locally there is much good work including but not limited to: citizen-led growing initiatives, community co-ops, local management of land, public realm to be opened up, new commons approach to land, apprenticeships and local food production & markets, encouraging individuals and groups to grow their own food. Much more could be achieved if the Metro Mayor opted to work with these organisations to scale and replicate their work. The new Metro Mayor’s term will coincide with Brexit’s impact for local producers, offering opportunities for strengthening local supply chains and local employment – turning a challenge into an opportunity.
Concerningly there appears to be a disconnect between practitioners and policy makers, despite the apparent success of existing food partnerships. What is clear is that the approach of the Metro Mayor needs to be an inclusive one. A genuine partnership approach is critical and needs to embrace those who are already delivering change as well as local producers and retailers. It needs to be evidenced based and have measurement at its heart. It will need to be holistic, addressing income inequality and job security as well as nutrition. And it needs to marry radicalism and compassion if it is to deliver food justice in the West Midlands.