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  • Sabine Goodwin & Maria Marshall

Turning the tide: Cash First and the Right to Food

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Charitable food aid organisations across the country find themselves in an impossible situation. As demand for food aid has soared over the past year, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has consistently found that its member organisations have been struggling to cope and some have needed to reduce the level of support they can provide. Food bank teams are having to make challenging decisions about rationing support. Yet most people struggling with severe food insecurity (skipping meals or cutting back on food because of lack of income), do not, or cannot, bring themselves to use a food bank at all. It’s clear that far too many people are struggling in silence.

Frontline teams know only too well that providing food aid is simply putting a sticking plaster on the problem of poverty. IFAN advocates for a cash first approach to food insecurity which means raising the incomes of people struggling to afford food to reduce the need for charitable food support. It’s clear that food parcels, and the redistribution of surplus food, are a false solution to food poverty. When someone is in financial crisis, cash support can address the poverty that a bag of food can only alleviate. But a cash first approach also aims to prevent the causes of financial crisis. Ultimately, its modus operandi are a living income and healthy standard of living for all (including clarity on what a minimum income should be).

How can we best reduce food insecurity?

Alongside growing advocacy around a cash first approach and a decent standard of living, we have seen growing calls for the right to food to be realised within UK law. When it comes to debates on how to best tackle growing food insecurity, ‘cash’ and ‘food’ can be seen as being at two opposing ends of the response spectrum.[1] In reality, ‘cash first’ and the right to food, are inextricably aligned in their aims and principles.

The argument for a cash first approach to food insecurity is that cash, not food, is by far the most dignified and sustainable way to support people struggling to afford food. Likewise, the right to food as expressed by former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler is not about charity but “the right to feed oneself in dignity by [one’s] own resources." Under international law, governments are the primary duty-bearers and are publicly accountable through social and economic rights for addressing growing food insecurity - not charitable food aid teams.

It’s as true of the UK as it is for the world at large - there is adequate food for the entire population. It’s structural inequalities exacerbated by policy decisions, which prevent people from being able to afford to eat. The UK’s inadequate benefit levels, low wages, and insecure work as well as punitive policies such as the benefit cap, sanctions, two-child limit, and No Recourse to Public Funds status have driven the need for millions upon millions of emergency food parcels over the last 13 years.

Leaving food banks and other charitable food aid organisations to respond to food insecurity, perpetuates and upholds these structural inequalities. As former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Philip Alston said after his visit to the UK in November 2018:The problem is that the next generation’s prospects are already being grievously undermined by the systematic dismantling of social protection policies since 2010.”

Lessons left unlearned

Yet, frustratingly, over the past years of crisis, we have seen governments support the infrastructure of this unsustainable and ineffective charitable food aid response. Food insecurity figures, and now food bank data, reported by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), demonstrate how normalised food poverty has become. Eight years ago, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger and Food Poverty highlighted the root causes of hunger bringing people to food banks. Today we are seeing more people than ever turning to them for help. The lessons from years of charitable food aid provision here and decades in North America have been ignored.

The UK has ratified, and is therefore legally bound by, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) including the Right to Food. [2] Yet we have seen resistance to adopting these rights into UK domestic law meaning that a person experiencing severe food insecurity in the UK who believes the government is violating their right to food can’t enforce that right.[3]

Another missed opportunity for UK government to take responsibility for these rights is Section 1 of the Equality Act of 2010 waiting in the wings. If this were to be "commenced", it would require authorities, including government departments, to take the socio-economic impact of their policies into account when making decisions.

If ICESCR rights were enshrined in UK law, they would provide a clear route for the UK Government, not donors and volunteers, to be held responsible for hunger. People forced to turn to charities to feed themselves and their families would experience the violation of their right to food. And people working or volunteering on the food aid frontline could be witnesses to the violation of this right. Through being able to legally challenge that violation, food aid groups could increasingly act as agents of change rather than being trapped in a system that relies on them to endlessly plug the gaps.

Cash First works

Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, explained to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee in November 2022 that: “The fact that a country like the United Kingdom has a developed welfare system means that you are not starting from zero. You have mechanisms that can be advanced."

Fakhri’s point was demonstrated through the pandemic’s increase to Universal Credit. The £20 uplift saw a 16% reduction in severe and moderate food insecurity (according to the Government’s own data). This cash first intervention clearly worked and the real-terms cut to Universal Credit in October 2021 could have been avoided if ICESCR rights were in force. What’s more, when over 2.1 million legacy claimants were unfairly denied the uplift, ICESCR rights could have bolstered calls to reverse this decision.

The message of cash first and the right to food are breaking through

The cash first message is breaking through. We’ve seen ground-breaking progress in recent years. The Scottish Government has committed to a cash first approach to food insecurity and is about to publish a plan to end the need for food banks. Based on learning from Scotland’s A Menu for Change project, IFAN vociferously advocates for a cash first approach alongside its members and partners. The network has worked with local and national partners to co-develop cash first referral leaflets across multiple local authorities across the UK. The Trussell Trust and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) also champion a cash first approach. And the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Trussell Trust calls for an Essentials Guarantee have seen significant support. The cross-party All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on ending the need for food banks has recommended cash first approaches as the default response to financial crisis. And increasingly we have seen local authorities across the UK using government funding, not to further bolster food banks, but to provide cash payments directly to people.

There’s also been inspiring energy around campaigns calling for a Right to Food across the country. Politicians, local leaders and unions are demonstrating that a Right to Food is a concept the public can get behind. In Scotland, significant progress has been made. The Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 recognises “that promoting good food is interlinked with a wide range of outcomes including social and economic well-being." The Right to Food is included in the recently published second National Human Rights Action Plan and in the Human Rights Bill currently in development.

Turning the tide

As IFAN member organisations know only too well, the scale of growing poverty and food insecurity in the UK is extreme. However, at our fingertips, we have the tools needed to create deep systemic change. A cash first approach can work to reverse the UK's institutional reliance on food aid. But to survive the test of time, a cash first approach needs a functioning legal framework that is justiciable. First and foremost, section 1 of the 2010 Equality Act must be “commenced” so that it can impose duties on governments and public bodies to reduce socio-economic inequality.

The UK government has claimed that it “is possible for an individual to challenge any government decision in the domestic courts if their rights have been breached.” However, the reality is different and a person who believes ICESCR rights have been violated has no way to challenge this in domestic courts given the UK Government has refused to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant. If these rights were incorporated into domestic law, we’d be able to tell another story.

The energy and motivation behind the groundswell of change we’re seeing in the UK stems from the wisdom and experience of frontline, grassroot organisations left to plug the gaps in the system for far too long. Eliminating the need for charitable food aid is an enormous challenge but that transformation is underway.

[1] The recent consultation from the APPG on Ending the Need for FoodBanks on how to support people facing destitution was titled ‘Cash or Food?’. [2] It’s important not to isolate the right to food from the other socio-economic rights in the ICESCR - such as the right to work, right to health, or right to social security. [3] The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee urged the government to consult on a national right to food in England in 2021. Yet, the recently published National Food Strategy did not contain even a mention of the Right to Food


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