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The right to food matters to Scotland
Access to food is a basic human right, but it’s one that isn’t met for all Scotland’s children and young people. Across the UK, more and more people are being pushed into food insecurity — where they don’t have consistent access to sufficient affordable, nutritious food.
You need to be able to get food, and your family needs to have the money to buy it. They should be able to afford food while meeting other basic needs like heating your home.
This isn’t the case for lots of families in Scotland right now. Lots of children and young people aren’t having their right to food made real. Austerity measures, welfare reform, low wages, insecure working conditions, the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis have pushed more and more people into food insecurity in Scotland.
In many cases, this has meant our state hasn’t been fulfilling our international obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The right to food in the ICESCR
The right to food is enshrined in article 11 of the ICESCR, which recognises that:
- everyone has the right to an adequate level of food,
- governments must take measures to improve the production, conservation and distribution of food,
- governments must tell people about the principles of nutrition,
- governments should develop or reform the ways they produce food so that natural resources are developed and used in the most efficient way, and
- the world’s food supplies should be distributed in an equitable way.
What are the key elements of the right to food?
In 1999, the Committee that monitors whether countries are putting the ICESCR Covenant into practice issued a General Comment explaining article 11 in more detail. This explains that the key elements of the right to food are that food should be:
- adequately available,
- adequately accessible,
- sustainably available, and
- sustainably accessible.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child creates general comments to:
- provide interpretation and analysis of specific UNCRC articles so that States have guidance around putting these into practice, and
- deal with how the UNCRC applies to broad issues related to the rights of the child.
An example of the first kind of general comment would be General Comment 17, which provides additional information around the right to play, Article 31 of the UNCRC. An example of the second kind would be General Comment 16 on the impact of business on children’s rights.
More in the Rights questions and answers section
What does the UNCRC say about the right to food?
The UNCRC is indivisible and interdependent. This means that if one right in it is impacted, it may affect the others.
For example, the right to food is linked to the right to education. Hunger may impact on children’s learning abilities and affect their ability to concentrate at school – as it’s a difficult thing to do when you’re hungry.
The right to health is also impacted, as nutrition is a key component of both the right to health and the right to food.
Three articles outlined in the UNCRC are directly relevant to the right to food:
This says governments should do as much as they can to make sure children and young people survive and develop.
This says governments should recognise children and young people’s right to social security and take measures to realise this right.
This says governments should recognise children and young people’s right to a standard of living that’s adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. It also says they should provide assistance to people responsible for a child – such as parents – to help this standard of living be realised.
Is Scotland keeping its promises on the right to food?
Food insecurity remains a serious problem for children across the UK, now heightened by the current cost of living crisis. As of September 2022, the Food Foundation estimated that over one in four households with children had experienced food insecurity in the past month – an estimated 4 million children across the UK who are not having their right to food met.
Data collected by the Trussel Trust on the use of food banks in the UK (including those outside the Trussell Trust network) showed that the average need in Scotland was higher than the national average.
In many cases, this has meant we’ve not been fulfilling our international obligations under the ICESCR and UNCRC.
Food insecurity affects children’s physical and mental health and lifelong development. Children who experience food insecurity are more likely to face adverse health outcomes, developmental risk, obesity, and malnutrition. Food insecurity also affects educational performance and can make it harder to self-regulate behaviours and emotions.
In November 2022, the Children’s Commissioners for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland submitted their joint report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors UNCRC implementation.
In their report, the Commissioners drew attention to free school meal provision and recommended that:
- Children eligible for free school meals should continue to receive support during school holidays, to ensure children do not go hungry when not in school. This will ensure the basic right to food is always met.
- Eligibility criteria for free school meals and other support should be reviewed to, as a minimum, ensure all children in poverty are eligible.
Free school meals are available to some extent across Scotland but not all children in poverty are eligible for free school meals. Eligibility criteria should be reviewed to ensure all children in need receive free school meals. While substitute free school meals during school holidays were temporarily put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this needs to be made permanent to ensure the right to food is upheld. The extension of free school meals to all primary school children in Scotland has been delayed, putting children’s rights to food at risk.
We also support extension to secondary school children but this requires further consideration, taking into account the views of children. Children and young people have told us that there are several barriers to taking up free school meals, including lack of awareness of eligibility for free school meals; stigma; quality of food and portion sizes; lack of choice; and desire for time away from the school estate. The Scottish Government, local authorities and individual schools must take steps to address the barriers which discourage children and young people in secondary schools from taking up free school meals; working with children and young people to create offers of support which better meet their needs.