Catherine West MP
Catherine West MP

Covid-19 has brought the harsh reality of food inequality into the spotlight.  I’ve written this blog for Left Food Forward on my thoughts on the urgent need for a food strategy.

For many of us, the abiding image of the start of the coronavirus crisis in the UK was the empty shelves in supermarkets, caused by a wave of panic buying and uncertainty about what was about to hit the nation.

While this has petered out – supermarkets are generally well stocked and shopping has become more organised on the most part – the issue of food security has never been more of an issue.

My constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green is in many ways a microcosm of the vast food inequalities in our society. While many of my constituents could afford to stock up in the days and weeks preceding the lockdown, hundreds simply did not have the ability to do this and have been left reliant on a threadbare support network to survive.

We’ve seen some constituents seeking assurances they can access their allotments to harvest their own nutritious goods – while others are asking for immediate help to source any food at all.

While Haringey has a robust network of food banks and soup kitchens, many of these have either closed or face real shortages due to the outbreak, and so the usual means of support for the most vulnerable has been closed off.

There have been some welcome elements of state support, but this is not nearly enough. The food parcels which have been arranged by the government are not well targeted enough to reach everybody, and in some cases the food which they provide is woefully inadequate or simply inappropriate for a diverse borough like Haringey.

Initially, the government provided my local council with enough food parcels for only 20 people, far less than the hundreds needing support, forcing them to work with already over stretched and under pressure voluntary sector partners.

One significant concern is those who are forced to shield at home for their own wellbeing. People in this category are being sent NHS letters to explain the steps that they need to take, but when they’ve gone to register as a vulnerable person the government website hasn’t recognised their NHS number. That’s prevented them from getting an online food order shop with supermarkets.

I have had constituents in this category telling me they have been unable to eat properly since the lockdown started. For a developed country like the UK, this is simply not acceptable.

The government has made much noise about supplying Free School Meals (FSM) for those eligible during the Easter holidays – but there has been no confirmation this will continue if the lockdown must be extended into the summer holidays. For many families this poses a significant financial headache, and adds to the stresses the outbreak is already bringing.

Even now, with the FSM measures in place, I have heard from constituents who are being denied eligibility based on outdated or incorrect information the government have about them. With a fast-changing economic situation there will be many who will see their income dry up, and will have to wait for the hope of FSM to feed their children.

There hasn’t been a proper national conversation about the food supply or food insecurity since the days of Jamie Oliver’s school dinners, but now should really be the time to herald in another national conversation. The food exists in our society, and everyone should have ample nutritious, enriching food to thrive on if there was a more even playing field.

Once the immediate need to save lives passes, and the outbreak is brought under control, this should be our focus and our aim. We should never again be in a position where the poorest in society are cut off from a decent and reliable food supply – or are forced to eat inadequate and unhealthy food simply due to their financial situation.”

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