What is a Right to Food and how can it Challenge Poverty?

Oct 13, 2023

After passing a piece of historic legislation last year, Scotland is now on its way to becoming a Good Food Nation, and is set to be the first nation of the UK to achieve this ambition.

The Good Food Nation Act brings together all the jigsaw-pieces of the Scottish food system together in one place so that we can see the big picture. The national food plan, currently being created, and soon to be publicly consulted on, will determine exactly what that big picture looks like, but it will likely include everything from nature-friendly farming to the quality of our school meals; a thriving food economy with good working conditions to tackling diet related ill health, and more besides. So things are looking bright, right?

“As another Challenge Poverty Week comes around again, people across the Forth Valley are struggling to afford good food more than at any time in recent history”

Not quite. As another Challenge Poverty Week 2033 came around again this October, people across the Forth Valley, both in and out of work, are struggling to afford good food more than at any time in recent history. With frontline emergency food provision services across Forth Valley still witnessing high demand, Could the Human Rights Bill, currently in public consultation until 5 October, could be the missing piece of the Good Food Nation jigsaw?

Let’s be clear, food is a basic human need and is recognised in international law as a human right. In 1999 The UN said that the right to food is realised when everyone has physical and economic access to adequate food at all times or the means to buy it. On paper the UK, is on board with this, it has just failed to see it through. And that’s a problem. However, the Human Rights Bill has the power to embed the Right to Food in law in Scotland for the first time (another first, for the UK!).

the right to healthy, nutritious, sustainable and culturally appropriate food and, importantly, the right to it with dignity

So, what is a right to food? You may be surprised to learn that it encompasses more than making sure everyone has access to enough food to get by on. It does more than this. It delivers the right to healthy, nutritious, sustainable and culturally appropriate food and, importantly, the right to it with dignity. That sustainability aspect is important as it protects food security for generations to come, and could link in with another Human right proposed by the bill, the right to a healthy environment.

But it is dignity that is, arguably, most key, because that could mean greater emphasis on the right to choose the food we eat. Having agency over the food we and our families can access and enjoy, brings with it a level of dignity that can often be limited when people are reliant on foodbanks. It is important to note that Forth Valley’s food banks and pantries resoundingly put dignity at the heart of all they do, by creating a warm welcome and offering as much choice as possible. But this is not a replacement for spending money in the shops you choose, on the food you choose. It is this difference that, in part, creates a dignity gap between those facing food insecurity and those who are not, that the legislation is looking to close.

So why now? For too long, many of those advocating the Right To Food would argue, we have allowed the safety net of food banks to quietly become a mainstay of our society, leaving the UK to quietly neglect its obligations under international law. As much as we might rightly celebrate the important service foodbanks and pantries perform, charity relies on the goodness of others. It is not a human right and so it cannot be legally claimed.

For this reason, the Human Rights Bill and its proposal to embed the Right to Food in Scots law could lead to a seismic shift when it comes to who holds the  responsibility for food poverty in Scotland. It has the power to take the burden of food poverty, with its associated shame and stigma, away from sections of society and, instead, place the it squarely at the door of government. It also is a seismic shift towards ending the need for foodbanks.

In short, the Human Rights Bill could allow communities, including marginalised groups, who can show they are being systemically denied dignified access to healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food to mount a legal challenge to collectively claim their human right to food. in this instance it would be up to the pubic sector to change the system to better serve these sections of society, rather than up to the individual to rely on charity while they navigate recurring cycles of food insecurity that they can feel trapped into.

The Right to Food could be a real gamechanger when it comes to Challenging Poverty. It opens the door to people who are reliant on foodbanks to, instead, claim their human right to feed themselves and their families in a nourishing sustainable and dignified way.  In doing so, it can shift the burden of stigma from the individual to the Public Sector. Better still, it can change the way Scotland’s relationship with those facing food poverty forever, as it grows into a Good food Nation.