Blog: Children, food insecurity and the Right to Food

14 December 2016

Nourish Scotland's logo.

Elli Kontorravdis is Policy and Campaigns Manager at Nourish Scotland. In this blog, she looks at the impact food insecurity has had on Scotland's children.

Earlier this year, two UN Committees took a step which neither had taken before.

For the first time, each made recommendations to the UK around the right to food of its citizens.

Recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child focused on children experiencing food insecurity, poor nutrition, and overweight and obesity.

Meanwhile, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made even broader recommendations around the right to food.

We now have international recognition of a challenge known for some time by families, schools, healthcare professionals, advisory services, and campaigners. Food insecurity is real and growing, unacceptable and a violation of the rights of the child.

The level of food insecurity in Scotland and the UK

The causes of food insecurity have been known for some time.

While the phenomenon is not new to the UK, its incidence has dramatically increased. This is due to a toxic combination of factors including:

  • low wages,
  • insecure work,
  • extensive reform of social security, and
  • a higher cost of living.

Food insecurity is now suspected to affect between 10 and 27% of the UK population. However, we don’t really know how many people it impacts, as no population-wide monitoring exists in either Scotland or the rest of the UK. The most prominent sign of a rise in food insecurity has been the exponential rise of emergency food aid provision. Just one provider – the Trussell Trust – handed out 133,726 parcels in Scotland last year, with a third of these going to children.

Meanwhile, some small-scale polling by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations found that 10% of people in the UK are experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity. That’s the harshest end of the food insecurity spectrum, at which point people are compromising on quantity and quality of food and experiencing hunger.

Low income and food insecurity

Another measurement that can indicate levels of food insecurity is the number of people living on very low incomes.

In Scotland, 22% of children live in households with an income below the relative poverty line, compared to 29% of children across the UK as a whole.

However, the relative poverty line is not linked to the cost of living. An analysis of incomes against the Minimum Income Standard suggests that 27% of UK households have incomes too low to afford access to a basic basket of goods and services, with families disproportionately represented in these figures.

The household benefit cap in particular was known by the UK Parliament to have a discriminatory impact on children, as child benefits were included within the cap’s threshold. The cap was recently reduced even further from £500 to £385 a week for a family— a reduction of more than 20% affecting 250,000 children.

Food insecurity and the voice of the child

Experiencing food insecurity as a child impacts negatively on physical health, mental health and developmental outcomes. Children are aware of household food insecurity, and internalise responsibility for managing food resources to reduce pressure on their parents or carers.

Yet children have been largely excluded from discussions and decision-making on areas that influence food insecurity.

This was one of the key reasons why the Children and Young People’s Commissioner asked Nourish Scotland and Home-Start UK to undertake a small piece of research listening to what children think about food insecurity. The study found that children have a nuanced understanding of:

  • children’s food needs,
  • barriers to accessing food, and
  • solutions to food insecurity.

Nutrition, policy and the right to food

The right to food isn’t just about access to any food— food must also be nutritious. Thinking about the policy context behind child nutrition, most of the focus has historically been on school food. Important progress has been made here, and – whilst there’s still some way to go – the absence of intervention beyond the school gate is troubling.

Westminster’s long overdue Childhood Obesity Strategy was resoundingly criticised for failing to commit to any significant interventions. The sugar levy was really the only new policy initiative. Whilst this was a small step in the right direction – having already incentivised some producers to reformulate their recipes – it’s unlikely to make much of a difference on overall dietary health.

Likewise, the failure to take simple regulatory measures to effectively ban the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods to children has been identified as the number one priority by UK health and obesity experts.

Ultimately, the failure to ensure healthy food is affordable is the real problem. The children we listened to in our partnership project agreed— thinking of policy interventions, they said to “make the fruit and veggies cheaper”.

The future of food insecurity in Scotland

The Scottish Government will soon be transferred significant social security powers that could be used to mitigate much of the strain placed on household food budgets. There are also plans to reintroduce statutory measurements and reduction targets for child poverty.

It is expected to consult on its own Diet and Obesity Strategy in 2017 and has indicated this will align with plans to develop cross-cutting food legislation.

Nourish Scotland are campaigning on the right to food and as members of the Scottish Food Coalition are calling for the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Good Food Nation Bill to take a framework approach to food justice issues.

We want to see broad pre-legislative consultation, including the co-creation with children and young people of platforms for their inclusion.

This legislation is a huge opportunity for Scotland to be a leader on socioeconomic rights in Europe and to act on the recommendations of multiple UN committees.