I've written to the Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what needs to happen to ensure everyone has access to nutritious food, smaller food shops are supported alongside supermarkets, and how we shift to a sustainable, resilient and healthy food system
Dear Secretary of State,
I appreciate all the crucial work that Defra civil servants and ministers will be doing at this incredibly challenging time. On the basis of concerns I’m hearing from constituents and others with expertise and experience in the food and farming sector, there are a number of points I would like to raise.
I would urge you to give these proposals full consideration so that everyone can access adequate nutritious food at this time of crisis and beyond, alongside other work that is taking place, for example to address the severe shortage of workers in the food and farming sector.
1 – SUPPORTING LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
Support for local independent food shops and sustainable and local producers must be a top priority at this present time. The government's approach appears to be focused on the big supermarkets, which is important but far from enough.
Whilst many existing and new local and regional food websites are already helping connect people with local food suppliers, for example Brighton and Hove Food Partnership the government could also be doing more to promote and support such initiatives. In particular, the government could create or commission a national umbrella website where anyone could go to find the regional and local food initiatives and promote this widely to help people find alternatives to supermarkets and to help local food businesses survive, as proposed by the Sustainable Food Trust.
Another example is the Open Food Network, which helps small food businesses set up online, but this cannot happen in most cases without additional investment for example in IT, processing, packaging, distribution or the creation of cooperatives to enable small scale producers to fully contribute to local food needs. I would highlight the Landworkers Alliance call for a dedicated fund to create and strengthen sustainable local and co-operative supply chains and urge you to heed this.
Government should be doing its utmost to support local and regional food networks, both to meet immediate needs, and in rebuilding a more sustainable, healthy and resilient food system as we emerge from this crisis.
2 – FOOD FOR VULNERABLE AND OLDER PEOPLE WHO FALL OUTSIDE THE CATEGORY OF CLINICALLY VULNERABLE
I am concerned to hear reports that government action is severely lacking when it comes to vulnerable and older people who fall outside of the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ group, as highlighted by Sustain and the Food Foundation. Food banks are struggling to meet increased demand, yet the government apparently still does not recognise the severity of food poverty at this time. One example is people who are over 70 who need to shield but who do not have the money or support to get food.
One solution would be a resurgence of “meals on wheels” in every community across the country. The government could step up and help unlock this type of local response by providing guidance, catalyst grants, coordination, underwriting school kitchen insurance, and training, for example. This won’t happen without some government support. Otherwise, there is a very real risk that vulnerable people will end up surviving on food that is nutritionally inadequate, especially in terms of fresh fruit and vegetables, when they could be receiving a regular delivery of nutritious ready to eat meals.
3 – VOUCHER SCHEME
I welcome the government's positive response to the campaign to extend the availability of free school meal vouchers to the school holidays. There remains concern, however, that these vouchers can only be spent in big supermarkets, even though there is no apparent reason for excluding smaller and more local shops and stores, online food delivery from smaller local companies, farm shops, farmers markets, veg box schemes and so on.
Whilst I appreciate that some local food schemes are reaching capacity and cannot scale up with immediate effect, there seems to be an overwhelmingly strong case for extending vouchers beyond supermarkets to local shops and other alternatives as these are available in many cases. In addition, some people eligible for these vouchers may not be able to get to one of the supermarkets.
Moreover, there is an even stronger case for simply putting money in people’s pockets, to ensure everyone can afford to purchase the food they need and can choose themselves where to spend that. I note that in Northern Ireland and Wales the money has been offered as cash directly into people’s bank accounts; there seems to be no good reason why this cannot happen in England too.
4 – FOOD SERVICE COMPANIES
I would urge you to do more to help food service companies meet food delivery needs over the coming weeks and months. As one company in my constituency has highlighted, thousands of jobs are under threat as food service companies that normally deliver to restaurants, cafes, pubs etc see their sales plummet. Yet alongside this, there is a massive increase in demand for home delivery of food and meals, which the supermarkets are clearly unable meet.
Is there a role that government can play in terms of brokerage, for example, to ensure this huge untapped capacity can meet the public’s food needs, especially for the enormous number of vulnerable groups who fall outside the most clinically vulnerable group, as mentioned above? One Brighton-based business has proposed a “government run portal where companies can post what foodstuffs they can supply along with the areas that they can cover in turn allowing the general public to see what is available in their neighbourhood.”
They have made the important point that many of the companies involved are local suppliers who in turn support a host of local food producers. A scheme like this would have the benefit of supporting on going commercial activity whilst providing a vital service to the community. This would build on the welcome announcement of the Emergency Surplus Food Grant and help avoid food waste.
5 – SHIFTING TO A SUSTAINABLE, HEALTHY AND RESILIENT FOOD SYSTEM
The current crisis is exposing flaws in our food system, from the large numbers of people who simply don’t have enough money for adequate appropriate food, to the fragility of globalised supply chains. Our current food system may perform well against economic performance metrics of increased global trade or profitability of supermarkets and international food business. But it’s not the sustainable, resilient and healthy food system that we need.
As the UN’s standing committee on nutrition has recently said, the response to the current crisis should involve ‘collaborative solutions, solidarity and reinforcement of local food systems’ and be clearly designed to further a ‘sustainable transformation to resilient and sustainable food systems with healthy nutrition at their core’.
I hope you would agree that, whilst we all focus rightly on immediate challenges, it is vital that actions being taken now help fix our food system from both a social and environmental perspective, rather than exacerbating or locking-in existing problems – considering the needs of the most vulnerable citizens, in the UK and globally.
Thank you again for all of Defra’s incredibly important work at this difficult time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely, Caroline