Last week saw the publication of the long-awaited Part Two of the National Food Strategy, which sets out how our diets will need to change over the next ten years to meet the Government’s existing targets on health, climate and nature. As part of our Food Justice campaign, we’ve been making the case for an ambitious food strategy with a Right to Food at its heart – but ultimately the final document fell short of the radical change that hungry families across the country so desperately need.
Let us start with the positives. Part One of the National Food Strategy made a difference, largely due to Marcus Rashford’s personal and very moving intervention which shamed the Government into enacting many of its recommendations. As a result, we saw fewer families go hungry than would otherwise have been the case during 2020. For his role as the author of these key proposals, Henry Dimbleby should be congratulated.
Without hesitation, the reinforcement of Part One’s recommendations on tackling food insecurity in Part Two are welcome, including proposals to extend eligibility for free school meals, fund holiday activity programmes, and expand the Healthy Start scheme. Some recommendations will be familiar to councils with food partnerships, such as strengthening “government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food” through a scheme like Food for Life. Other new ideas, such as a trial of “community eatwell” programmes, also have the potential to make a practical difference across the country.
Less ambitious is the acceptance of the social and economic settlement. Whilst the report doesn’t lose sight that poverty causes a range of food-related issues, from hunger to obesity, the recommendations only land glancing blow to structural inequality. It is disappointingly silent on a Right to Food, which offered the possibility of changing the frame through which we see nutrition. It accepts an ongoing need for food banks without questioning why they have come about. It fails to challenge the prevailing economic system; we have apparently reached the here and now because of the of the “economics of supply and demand” and not because of a series of actions and inactions that governments have made.
Part Two of the report goes beyond looking solely at food insecurity, aiming to take a more holistic approach (“from field to fork”) to some of the more intractable questions of farming and diet. The need for massive change to reach Government targets across a range of policy areas is great: by 2032, fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30%, and fibre consumption by 50%, while consumption of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar will have to go down by 25%, and meat consumption should reduce by 30%.
The report’s vision is for a significant shift away from animal meat as a protein source, and moving some farmland away from meat rearing towards the managed sustainable habitat is prescribed. There is therefore little about the need to encourage new entrants into the farming industry. Despite much about fishing in the evidence base, there is very little in the recommendations about that industry – which seems a particularly curious omission for a report commissioned to study the whole food system.
The Strategy also stresses the importance of embedding core animal welfare and environmental standards into trade deals. Post-Brexit, Government is keen to sign new trade agreements, yet there is currently no mechanism to protect minimum standards in our deals. This is not just about chlorinated chicken or protecting our own farming industry with non-tariff barriers. Buying low standard, low animal welfare imports would be off-shoring our responsibilities.
Despite a few curious omissions such as fishing, the report is sweeping in scope and rooted in an impressive evidence base, and if the recommendations are implemented, it would usher in dramatic change. It seems odd then that we can also say that the report is unambitious. The recommendations which address food insecurity are welcome but fail to address many of the root causes and lack the radicalism that other parts of the document have. It is almost as if the author thinks the Government doesn’t care and is unlikely to act to tackle food poverty.
Ultimately though it is less about the report and more about whether Government follows through with the recommendations. The proof is the in (low saturated fat, low sugar) pudding. On the day that the report was published, the Prime Minister off-handedly rejected a key plank of the report: a new tax on unhealthy foods. This is worrying because it was touted as a crucial possible funding mechanism for the more expensive recommendations such as the desperately-needed proposals to expand Free School Meals. The initial signs are therefore not exactly positive.
Government has committed to bringing forward a white paper within six months of the publication of the National Food Strategy. For those of us committed to campaigning for Food Justice, the time has never been more vital. Over the next few months, we need to not just push the Government to take up the report’s recommendations, but to go further and encourage them to join the growing public consensus on a Right to Food – with three quarters of the British public back enshrining a Right to Food in UK law. Until every family in the UK has enough food on the table, the fight for Food Justice will go on here at the Co-operative Party.