Our work on the right to food

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 and insecure working conditions pushed more and more people into food insecurity in the UK.

And since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity has increased even more.

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.

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:

Article 6

This says governments should do as much as they can to make sure children and young people survive and develop.

Article 26

This says governments should recognise children and young people’s right to social security and take measures to realise this right.

Article 27

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?


Austerity measures, welfare reform, low wages and insecure working conditions have pushed more and more people into food insecurity in the UK. In many cases this has meant we’ve not been fulfilling our international obligations under the ICESCR and UNCRC.

The UN has examined the extent to which the UK has met its obligations under both human rights instruments, and published ways in which our state is breaking international law. Our office was actively involved in these examinations.

The ICESCR and the right to food in Scotland

In July 2016, our office submitted a report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to assist their examination of whether the UK complied with the ICESCR.

The report raised concerns that reductions to household income for poorer children had led to an increase in crisis food bank provision, food poverty and fuel poverty. These measures compromised the right to food enshrined in article 11 of the ICESCR, so the Commissioner at the time took the view that children’s ICESCR rights had been violated.

He also noted that the right to food was a major issue in Scotland and that food poverty was a serious problem for children. Low wages and welfare reform had exposed more and more people to food insecurity. Research on intra-household distribution – which people who live in a house have access to which resources – had found that parents were being pushed into poverty to provide for their children, taking measures such as skimping on food so that others had enough to eat.

The report also highlighted the All-Party Inquiry into Hunger in the UK, which had heard about the reliance of people on low incomes on charitable food banks. The inquiry found that the rising costs of housing, food and fuel had impacted on the ability of households to buy and cook food.

Household reliance on food banks had a disproportionate effect on children. Our report noted that a third of people depending on food banks were children, and that diet-related health inequalities greatly impact on child attainment and long-term quality of life.

Concluding Observations on the ICESCR

The ICESCR Committee was critical in its Concluding Observations, which laid out ways in which the UK is violating the Covenant.

Changes to social benefits

The Committee was particularly critical around cuts in social benefits and changes in entitlements to social benefits. These were introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, and had an adverse impact on certain groups’ enjoyment of the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. Among these groups were children, low-income families and families with two or more children.

Certain groups at increased risk of poverty

The Committee also noted that certain groups of the population are either more affected by poverty or at an increased risk of it. Children and young people form one of these groups.

The UNCRC and the right to food in Scotland

In May 2016, the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners 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 the UK response to the global downturn following the 2008 financial crisis, including the State’s imposition of austerity measures and changes to its welfare system. The Committee said that these measures had failed to protect the most disadvantaged children, preventing the realisation of their rights under UNCRC Articles 26 and 27.

Concluding Observations on the UNCRC

The Committee’s Concluding Observations to the UK laid out the ways in which our state is violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and some of these related to the right to food.

Lack of effective response

The Committee was concerned that some available programmes – such as those offering free school meals – may not be effectively responding to child hunger.

Lack of systematic data collection

The Committee called on the UK to systematically collect data on food security and nutrition for children, so that the root causes of child food insecurity and malnutrition could be identified.

Lack of regular monitoring

The Committee called for regular monitoring to assess the effectiveness of policies and programmes on child food security and nutrition, including school meal programmes, food banks, and programmes for infants and young children.