Making the food supply chain work for everyone

The recent images of empty supermarket shelves are an iconic reminder that running out of food is a really scary prospect. It’s hard to not be affected by this anxiety, even if at the rational level we know there is now – as there has been for years – enough food to go around, and that there is no reason for this to change as a result of this pandemic.

That global supply chain is an amazing combination of trust and technology. Of course it also has huge downsides; it generates massive environmental damage, monumental food waste, exploitative work practices and a disastrous mismatch between what we need to eat for health and what we are being sold. Of course it would be good if Scotland were to produce more of what it eats, and eat more of what it produces. We absolutely need a food system transformation to tackle the climate and nature emergencies, and this needs global as well as local work.

Meanwhile we should be grateful that the global food chain is as resilient as it is; and that countries are co-operating to tackle the virus and also to keep food moving. Because there isn’t, and never has been a shortage of supply; and once the supply chain adjusts to the new patterns of shopping during this extraordinary time, the shelves will be full again.

Unfortunately, full shelves won’t stop many people from worrying about running out of food. What’s changed is that it’s now a concern for more than the 8% of Scots who were already food insecure before this crisis, whose incomes are simply too low to make ends meet. Now it’s the people who have recently lost their jobs. It’s the people who have been told to stay home and not go out. It’s the families who were receiving free school meals but now have the kids at home.

The wheels of government are moving to tackle this, and moving at scale. Scottish Government last week announced £350m of funding to tackle poverty and reduce food insecurity, on top of UK Government promises to pay people’s wages directly during the crisis. This is clearly a good example of government respecting the right to food and acting to fulfil it.

The food supply chain can and will deliver; and it can and will do better on sustainability, health and fairness. But now is the time to make sure it delivers for all of us.

We have a clear choice now. We can keep going with our two-tier food system, directing the flood of community goodwill into a new version of emergency food aid, a new form of food bank. These – at least for the duration of the crisis – may be able to source, sort, package and deliver food to vulnerable people, though the cracks are already showing in relying on a largely volunteer-run service (many of whom have already had to step back because of their own vulnerability in the face of the virus).

Stripping back community efforts to a complex and convoluted way to provide a basic food parcel will also remove the most valuable asset of community food initiatives – that they can be a source of much needed social interaction, care and support.

Or, we can take the right to food seriously, and commit to ending food insecurity in Scotland. £350m is about 50 times the value of the food given out in food banks in Scotland each year. Everyone should be able to afford a good enough diet for themselves and their family, and no-one should be worried about running out of food at the end of the week. This crisis has brought the challenge centre stage, and it’s time to put the systems in place to support people now and in the future.

In the short term this means broadening access to good food. School kitchens can keep producing safe healthy meals not just for children stuck at home but also for people having to self-isolate. Delivering those meals to people’s homes is a chance to check that people are doing OK and to offer advice, information and encouragement.

The Scottish Government should work with food retailers to ensure that delivery charges and minimum order limits do not present barriers to accessing food when and where people need it. People who would have turned to food banks should instead be able to get a shop delivery to their home of the food they actually want, just like everyone else.

For the many thousands of people who want to volunteer, there are jobs to be done, just as in the days of meals on wheels. People will still need their neighbours to step up and create (new) ways of building relationships and supporting people to stay well. And there are new jobs too, using this opportunity to get everyone online who wants to be (connection and broadband charges can be waived too).

If the Premier League can shut down; if the Government can take a million new people onto payroll; and if this time we really are all in this together, then we should use this opportunity to make the right to food real and get rid of our two-tier food system.

The food supply chain can and will deliver; and it can and will do better on sustainability, health and fairness. But now is the time to make sure it delivers for all of us.