Respecting the right to food during lockdown and crisis response: We need to talk about state duties

As the far-reaching impact of the covid-19 outbreak and measures adopted to save lives have become apparent, so has a devastating impact on people’s right to food. Food banks across the UK report immense increases in the number of people in need of emergency food aid. This includes those who were already struggling to afford enough food for themselves and their families as well as those who have unexpectedly lost their income and are now turning to local charities for support.

The rising demand on food banks fits with the findings of a recent survey by the Food Foundation –  Covid-19 conditions have both exacerbated existing economic vulnerability to food insecurity and created new such vulnerabilities.

In response, we have seen impressive civil action across the UK. Thousands have signed up to volunteer, neighbours are stepping in to support one another, and generous donations have been made to charities that look after those most vulnerable in our society. The UK and Scottish governments have joined in that response, directing large sums of money to food banks and community food provisions, and designating food bank volunteers as key workers.

In this time of uncertainty and crisis that threaten not only individual and public health, but also people’s livelihoods, it is encouraging to see charities step up to support our society’s most vulnerable, and be supported to do so.

But we need to take a step back and recognise that the collateral impact of the government-imposed lockdown and orders of social distancing is not an unexpected force of nature.

Loss of income and access to food was a foreseeable outcome of the decisions taken by the state to protect our public health and the NHS.

The UK government has taken commendable steps to secure the income of many; The Furlough job retention scheme and other income support schemes have meant that many continue to be able to access basic needs during lockdown. For those who are left out and face financial emergencies due to Covid-19 conditions, the Scottish Government’s commitment to extend funding for crisis grants is a welcome measure.

However, it is concerning that other significant emergency funding packages have fallen back on models of charitable food aid rather than providing direct entitlements. So we need to talk about the government’s obligation to respect human rights, including the right to food during these challenging circumstances.

A right to food lens on Covid-19 measures

At its core, the right to food means that everyone must have access, in a dignified and culturally appropriate manner, to nutritious, sustainable and safe food at all times. It is the duty of the government to respect, protect and fulfil everyone’s right to food. This means that the government’s action and measures must not interfere with people’s existing access to the resources that provide them with food. And where people, for reasons beyond their control, are unable to access food themselves, the state must proactively ensure this access.

The decision to close down much of the country’s economic activity was taken in the interest of protecting human rights and saving lives. However, such measures cannot be taken at the expense of other fundamental rights. It remains the duty of the government to ensure that if its actions cause people to lose their means of accessing food, then other action is taken to secure that access.

And that duty must not be neglected on the expectation that charity will fill the gap.

From a right to food perspective, access to food must be recognised as an entitlement; a premise that ought to guide our entire food system. If our response depends on charitable donations plugging the gaps during this crisis, then the right to food is not being respected. It also sets a dangerous precedent, not only for future crises, but also for future normality. We risk further institutionalising food aid and making food banks a permanent part of our society.

The nature of the current crises adds another layer of concern to the overwhelming retort to food banks: how could it be acceptable to make people to go to food banks at a time where physical distancing and staying at home is paramount to both individual and public health? Food bank staff and volunteers are doing their very best to keep everyone safe, but a human rights perspective points out that it would be safer to ‘let people stay home and get them the money they need to get the food they need’.

What can we learn from other countries?

It is timely then, to look to our European neighbours and further afield. While we do not intend to endorse the approach of any one country in its entirety, there are lessons about respecting the right to food to be learned from governments who have taken responsibility for the impact of their actions on society’s most economically vulnerable.

Some positive actions include:

The Canadian government has set up the Covid Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) for everyone residing in Canada who has lost their income due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Applicants receive $500 per week for 4 months, and foreign workers and students can apply too. The Canadian government is paying the benefit immediately and checking eligibility at a later stage to avoid delays.

In New Zealand those who cannot afford to buy food due to unforeseen events can access emergency government support in the form of a pre-paid card to use in a range of food shops. It is made clear to people that they do not need to be benefit-receivers to access this support, and that the money does not need be paid back.[1]

India’s approach to Covid-19 lockdown has had devastating impacts on household food insecurity. However, there are still lessons to learn from the government’s decision to issue direct cash payments to elderly people, people with disabilities, widowed women and other vulnerable groups.

Paths not taken:

In many of our European neighbour countries, emergency grants and benefits do not seem to be a vital part of the crisis response, but neither do food banks. This may be attributable to more robust social security systems across Europe generally, or to more common efforts to reduce delays to emergency payments that people in the UK routinely face when emergencies arise.

In Germany, for example, most of the eligibility testing for social security payments has been suspended. In Norway, there is talk of placing a legal duty on local authorities to secure incomes to speed up the process of getting people money.

At the end of March, the Portuguese government announced that asylum seekers will be granted full citizenship rights during the crisis. A decision that resonates strongly with a human rights approach. These commitments are reflected in the words of the Minister of Internal Administration:

‘It is in these moments that it becomes even more important to guarantee the rights of the most fragile… Ensuring the access of migrant citizens to health, social security and job and housing stability is a duty of a solidary society in times of crisis’.

Respecting the right to food in the UK requires stronger action from government to take similar responsibility for ensuring no one is forced into financial instability that threatens their access to food.

Rather than allowing charities to fill the gap for people who have been pitched into food insecurity, we should expect our government to demonstrate the same sense of obligation as many others around the world.  

[1] A similar grant is available in Scotland from the Scottish Welfare Fund, which will provide cash for food and basic needs. With our partners at A Menu for Change, we have explored best practice in administering this Fund: