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Food access a right to all – and an obligation for everyone?

In 1986, stakeholders from around the world came together in Ottawa, Canada, for the First International Conference on Health Promotion. Emerging from this conference was a charter for action to achieve Health for All, which identified eight fundamental conditions and resources for health (the ‘prerequisites for health’). Over the next 24 days, we will review these eight prerequisites – and discuss what they mean 28 years later. In this, the fourth of our Ottawa blog series, we consider Food.

In 1976, the UK Government ratified the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which included the obligation on the state to ensure food access for all. Yet, despite this pledge - made over 28 years ago - over the past 12 months, it has been widely reported that nearly half a million people regularly use food banks to starve off hunger.

This tragedy seems more perverse, when one considers that in 1976, a loaf of bread cost 9p (£1.29 in today’s money), approximately 0.3% of the average weekly wage. Yet today, the same loaf costs £1.02, 0.1% of the average weekly wage.

On the surface these figures look optimistic. With less of our weekly wage spent on basic nutrition, surely we have greater disposable income for education, social activities and health. Therefore, how in a society in which a loaf of bread costs 0.1% of the average weekly wage, can people be going hungry?

The answer lies in the numbers, which hide a far more complex picture. Specifically whilst the proportion of household income spent on food decreased from 33.3% in 1953 to 16% in 2003. From 2004 to 2011, for the first time in post-war Britain, the proportion of household incomes spent on housing, utility bills and food actually increased.

Meanwhile, whilst the average wage in the UK has increased over the past 30 years, the gap between the rich and poor has also widened. The average weekly wage for a full time employee in the UK is £517, but working full time on the £6.31 hourly minimum wage would gross £252.38. Crucially this has seen the most severe impact on the poorest – with the proportion of incomes spent on food, housing and utilities for the poorest households rising from 31% in 2003 to 40% in 2012.

This is a pattern which is mirrored around the world (in developed economies), for instance in the US, food’s share of the family budget has fallen for all but the poorest families. Similarly, recent national data has shown that in Canada 11.6% of the population have/or are currently experiencing food insecurity.

So what is the answer, and what is the role for business?

1. Co-ordaining food waste with food banks? It is estimated that more than 4 million tonnes of edible food is binned every year by the UK food industry. Therefore, a simple (or at least a short-term) solution would be matching food going uneaten – with people who are going hungry (as illustrated by the valuable work by Fareshare and activities by both (for example) Pret a Manger, Mark and Spencer and Unilever.

2. Social supermarkets or Communities Shops – For instance this week it has been announced a group of leading supermarkets have begun to sell their food at 70% discounts, with the first store in London (and 20 more planned to be rolled-out) – see link.

Yet what are the economic implications of creating a formal secondary food market? And, more pertinently, will it provide a long-term solution? The idea of food banks is by no means new. Indeed, a recent report by Food Banks Canada acknowledges as much – and that food charity, whilst incredibly valuable short-term, is unable to address food insecurity over the long term. More importantly, what are the moral issues of not addressing the structural factors which see 500,000 people (approximately the population of Bristol) not earning sufficient money to feed themselves and their families.

Could a longer-term solution be achieved through a more coordinated approach by business (linking employment, wages and access to food)…

3. Employers being guardians against hunger: There are widespread calls, alongside real tangible action being undertaken, to ensure children do not go to school hungry. Could this be model be replicated so that businesses take a lead? Perhaps companies will be legally (or at least socially) bound to offer all their employees subsidized, healthy and hot food (even extending this further to their families) in the near future?

Therefore, as we approach the 40 year anniversary of the UK Government signing the international convention - should organizations (public and private) also ratify this convention, that food access is a right for all. 


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