Programme for Government – what’s in it for food?

It’s natural to put ‘food’ into the search box and see what this 135 page document says. But that would miss some of the most important messages.

First, of course, the incorporation into Scots law of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This has profound implications for our food system which has a lifelong impact on children’s health and wellbeing. It creates duties on government and public bodies to ensure that all our children are well-nourished and families are supported to do this. It requires children and young people to be consulted in shaping the food system.

Second, the green jobs fund. £20m a year is not a lot – but Nourish has been pitching for a £5m a year ‘work and learn’ scheme for young people to get into local food, so we are hopeful.

Third, the automation of local level benefits and payments like free school meals and clothing allowances. Typically, many of the people who need these entitlements most may struggle to apply for them – so this proactive approach will make a vital difference for many families with tight food budgets. Similarly, the £10 per week per child Scottish Child Payment introduced from February 2021 will have a significant impact on food insecurity.

Fourth, the 20 minutes neighbourhood idea. Food buying habits have shifted during lockdown, and different versions of the 20-minute food environment are possible. Amazon, Deliveroo and the supermarkets could bring it all to our door, with the white van, the cargo bike or even the drone saving us the bother of the walk. Alternatively, our primary school, corner shop, community food hub or personal locker could be a delivery and chat point for a consolidated drop off from local farmers, growers and ethical retailers. And on the way home in the good weather we could pick up some fresh in-season treats from the neighbourhood growing project.

Which way that goes depends to some extent on the other more food-focused announcements. We can expect “a new Local Food Strategy for Scotland and work to transform Scotland’s convenience store sector to maximise local promotion and purchase of fresh, healthy Scottish produce.”

We’re also promised ‘community food partnerships’ to build on the partnership working between councils and communities during lockdown, and hopefully these will connect with the local food agenda too.

There are plans for Public Health Scotland to ‘improve healthier eating for people on low incomes’ – which hopefully won’t focus on the hundred-year old narrative of budgeting, cooking and exhortation as solutions to poverty. There’s also a commitment to reviving the Bill to restrict junk food promotion.

Intriguingly, there’s a proposal for ‘farmer-focused supply chains’ as part of making farming more sustainable and profitable. In the context of a messy Brexit, supply chains are set to be anything but, with potentially disastrous tariffs on livestock exports. (Brexit is also likely to lead to a spike in food prices, undoing much of the good work on supporting household budgets.)

New mechanisms for agricultural support will help farming tackle climate change and the nitrogen balance sheet moves forward a step – so moving in the right direction if a little slowly.

Overall verdict? Plenty to work with, but one major disappointment. There is no cross-cutting approach to food. The Good Food Nation bill which featured last year, and was a week away from introduction at the point of lockdown, doesn’t get a passing regret. The recently announced ‘non-statutory statement of food policy’ – and the Ministerial Working Group charged with developing it – are conspicuous by their absence. The ‘radical blueprint for human rights legislation’ doesn’t mention the right to food.

Lets hope this time next year we’ll be welcoming the next programme for government with a joined-up food policy, a Good Food Nation Bill in the making and the right to food.