City Hall’s latest poverty figures show millions of Londoners are in a dire situation that’s only getting worse. Almost one in five has “financial problems”; Almost a third say they are “just about managing”. One in five people earning less than £20,000 said they have been forced to go without food or depended on emergency relief in recent weeks. The situation is worse for black and Asian Londoners, as well as deaf and disabled Londoners who face greater financial difficulties. A quarter of our retirees live in poverty, and the hardship is increasing every day, which means more hunger, malnutrition, disease and infirmity – health inequalities that shorten the lives of the poorest.
In London, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, there’s no reason we can’t feed everyone. Despite this, access to sufficient food and nourishment is left to the luck of the draw. Your zip code determines whether your child will receive free school meals and the amount of food assistance. Competitive funding for food projects means our communities and community communities must compete for tiny grants to provide food. Some businesses now even have food banks for their own workers: in retail, employers organize corporate social responsibility donations to food banks, and then switch their own low-wage workers to emergency food supplies to feed their own families.
Since the 1960s, British governments have failed to legislate the right to food, despite signing numerous UN treaties supporting it. Since the 2000s we have observed consistent lobbying by various NGOs, but still no right to food. Public health resources are constantly being taken away and hunger, malnutrition and misery are creeping deeper into our communities.
Enough is enough. We need our City Hall to take a comprehensive approach to organizing food supplies during this crisis and beyond. For Right to Food London, this means three urgent steps, as outlined in our petition to the Mayor of London:
- Universal free school meals for all primary and secondary school children.
- A network of communal kitchens, including use of our school kitchens.
- Open access to emergency food centers (food banks) by ending the referral system and means testing.
We focus on schools because they are a cornerstone in realizing the right to food. Providing all children with nutritious food not only supports families in difficulty, but also enables children to learn and thrive well. Providing universal free school meals is the only way to end the stigma of means testing and dinner debt.
At present, school catering – including kindergartens and holiday programs – is a huge profit-maker that could be organized through public control of procurement and catering for the benefit of children’s health rather than private companies. There is a school kitchen near every community settlement, but our communities cannot use it because they are often contracted with multinational catering companies. We must demand access to these kitchens when not in use at school so that we can provide “community kitchens” or “community restaurants” to feed all those in need.
Charity food projects as they currently exist are now largely run by unpaid workers. The work of faith groups and volunteers is genuinely respected, but as many themselves acknowledge, it is no substitute for a functioning welfare state or for community food and nutrition jobs. These were once part of the public health effort known as ‘public health nutrition’, but this vital work has been privatized and given to charity and replaced by a growing ‘food volunteerism’. Food banks have no national standards for labor conditions or nutritional value of food.
The Trussell Trust alone relies on 28,000 volunteer food workers. Many of these volunteers have been doing this work for free for years, including during the pandemic, and are tired. Some speak of feeling secondary trauma because of the poverty they see. Often this is alongside those volunteers who themselves are living in poverty and debt. This is a mammoth show of collective caring and solidarity, but it also shows that the system of “food insecurity” is not working. It’s dysfunctional, unsustainable, and despite your best efforts, stigmatizing and cruel. Tackling food insecurity should not be left in the hands of charities and businesses: it can and should be under public scrutiny.
So for many members of the Right to Food campaign, this work is about politicizing the food system in London, with the labor movement taking a leading role in enforcing this demand. Many trade unionists are already involved in table work, often working during the day and on a voluntary basis in the evenings or at weekends. Food insecurity is a fundamental issue for the labor movement, not only to ensure that communities have enough to eat, but also to ensure that the food workers themselves are adequately paid and are not being exploited and used to undermine the welfare state.
Until things change and forever, we will organize in our city’s communities to feed all those in need. Along with the national Right to Food campaign, led by Ian Byrne MP and Fans Supporting Foodbanks, we are building the campaign across London – at football and other sports clubs, as well as in communities, workplaces, schools, colleges and faith groups. From October there will be demonstrations for the right to food in the boroughs, starting with Lewisham on October 1st; The next day we take the fight to the Tory party conference. From the grassroots, street by street, district by district, we can build a city that takes responsibility.