The Right to Food

I co-teach an MA module here at the University of Sheffield called Theories and debates in food security and food justice. One of the lectures is on the right to food. I asked twitter folk for some reading recommendations. These were very helpful. Thank You. I am sharing the slides that I prepared in this blog post.

We filled two hours just getting through slides 1-7. Many of the students had some previous knowledge about the Right to Food. I wanted to get into the different dimensions of the right, so we examined the language and objections to food as a right. We had a robust and wide-ranging discussion. It is a good topic to consider with students.

Many countries, including the UK, signed up to the UN Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes reference to the Right to Food (with definitions agreed in General Comment 12). Although the right to food is recognised and implemented in many parts of the world*, the UK and several other economically wealthy countries did not codify it into national legal frameworks.

Interestingly, one of the arguments against positioning food as a right concerns how we understand food (in)security in wealthy economic nations. Here, and quite explicitly, food (in)security is reduced to the ability to afford food. I have frequently argued that food security is tied up with income because we live in a capitalist society, but this is not a necessary relationship. Instead, it is contingent. Food security is not reduceable to economy because food and how we access and utilise it is also not reduceable to economics. Food is more than nutrients and calories that are commodified. Food is also about how we use it, how we know it, how we understand it, how we share it, how we eat it and other aspects that reflect our values and personhood. When we are food insecure, these other non-economic aspects and the wider resources we need to achieve these aspects are also in deficit.

Food as a right has been dealt a further blow in that the right to food does not appear as such in the Sustainable Development Goals. Not only do the SDG’s move away from a rights-based approach (although some are recognised in the SDG’s, such as the right to water), goals are also targets. You can miss a target, but you cannot violate a right. As illustrated in the slides below, the UK is failing to improve against many of the SDG’s. In some cases progress is replaced by a move backward, notably SDG2, which concerns moving toward zero hunger.

In Winter 2021, 3 out of every 10 adults in the UK was not food secure, but just 1 out of every 3 adults is food secure in some parts of the UK. It is likely that these figures are worse now with the cost of living crisis–a crisis underpinned by a lack of aspiration among ministers to ensure that we meet our goals combined with Brexit benefits that include a weaker pound and lower buying power. The London School of Economics has estimated that Brexit alone – before the effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are accounted for – is responsible for a 6% rise in food prices. Post-Brexit, UK exports to the EU fell by 14% in 2021. The Centre for European Reform estimated that Brexit had, by the end of 2021, reduced trade in goods between the UK and the EU by 13.6% and left UK GDP 5.2% lower than it would have been had the UK stayed in the EU single market.  


This is the structure of the module:

Week 1:  Introduction, what is justice and what is food? (MKB) 

Week 2:  Food has never been secure. (RVJ)

Week 3:  What is food security? (MKB)

Week 4:  Embodying food security. (RVJ)

Week 5:  How we have succeeded and failed in our attempts to achieve food security (MKB)

Week 6:  No lecture, reading week

Week 7:  Citizen responses for food security. (RVJ)

Week 8:  Food as a right? (MKB)

Week 9:  Climate Change and scales of responsibility. (RVJ)

Week 10:  Food Ladders as a structure for community responses. (MKB)

Week 11:  Wrap up (MKB/RVJ). Guest Lecture from Pamela Richardson Nwengya

*Countries that have incorporated the Right to Food into their constitutions include: Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Congo, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Fiji, Guatamala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi, Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, Suriname, Ukraine, Zimbabwe. Others have given it explicit recognition as a goal or directive principle: Bangladesh, Burundi, South Korea, Gambia, India, Iran, Ireland, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Uganda, and Venezuela (see: See: https://www.fao.org/3/i3892e/i3892e.pdf).

Food for thought: FSA seminar about the food ladders.

I was invited to give a talk about food security and the food ladders framework to the FSA recently. The seminar was recorded.

The current state of food insecurity in the UK and why we should stop asking “what can people do?”

I was invited to participate in yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 show Money Box Live. The show included people struggling to make ends meet and worried about what the autumn and winter will bring as the cost of living increases. Front-line service providers talked about what they see on the ground. It was an interesting show with a strong reminder of the struggle that people face. The guests told their stories with dignity, truth and openness. These stories are not, sadly, unique. I have heard them before. We are a wealthy country, yet this is where we are.

This is in a context that is illustrative of our current situation. Dad’s House, which is one of the interviews, is a bit worried about how they will meet the increased demand and continue to provide the great range of community support that is so needed. On the other hand, today’s news reported that the owner of British Gas, one of if not the UK’s major household energy providers, posted billions of profits and are paying dividends to shareholders. One of the interviewees told us, with clear anxiety, how difficult he was finding it to feed his family and how his energy bills have exploded in the recent months and are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter. This is appalling.

The interviewer, like so many do, asked me at the end, “What can people in this situation do?” I knew she was going to ask this question. I was encouraged not to be ‘political’ and just provide advice that households might be able to utilise. I understand where this comes from. There is a clear desire to be helpful and to give people encouragement.

And there are practical things individuals can do. My advice is: Ask your neighbours if they have any tips for how to manage. If you are part of a food club, ask others who are part of that. Share what you do with them. In my research experience, the people living at the sharp end have developed brilliant budgeting strategies and crisis management skills that are effective within the constraints imposed by the wider context and where they live. They know what it is like and have the answers. We should listen to them as they are the experts.

These strategies will help with the stretching, but people and money can only stretch so far. There is only so much elasticity. If the gap is too wide, the money won’t reach and the people will break. This is happening now. I fear for the winter.

When discussing wider contextual changes or ways to intersect with opportunities, that is where academics, service providers and industry experts can provide advice. Martin Lewis is an excellent example. Some of what he says will be relevant, and some won’t. Just take from his toolbox and tell your friends.

The point of this blog post really is to interrogate that question just a little bit more.

This question always makes me uncomfortable because I see it as individualizing what is now largely a social-political-economic problem. It somehow implies that people should be doing more to make their money stretch in this time of a cost of living crisis.

What I want to say in response to this question is:

Push back. Write to your government representative. Join a union if you can. Support the unions if you can’t. Organise one if your sector does not have one. This collective engagement is the opposite of individualization. If we collectively demand better wages and better working conditions, our lives will improve because that will become normal. If we stay quiet or divide ourselves, things will only get worse. Don’t believe the hype. Trickle-down does not ever work and failure is more common than success in business. Very few are actually, truly self-made. Believing you will be the one to succeed where others have failed is highly unlikely. Good on you if that happens, but in a socially just society, it should happen anyway if you have aspiration and drive, regardless of what wages are being paid. So why not live a better life along with your neighbours than suffer on your own? There are clear examples of people achieving individual success in places where the safety net works as it should and where wages and services are sufficient (see for example Sweden).

Individualisation is a neoliberal tactic and, as such, is just as ‘political’ as statements about collectivization. But individualization has become normalised and is perceived as a-political. It is absolutely not. Individualisation is also harmful. It breaks people down and isolates them. It makes them vulnerable to crisis. It creates division and then imposes hierarchies that stigmatise and cause shame. This settles into people. It makes them physically ill and contributes to a further cycle of food insecuirty.

Collective action, mutual support, and community are not the same as state control of everything. It is not communism as far-right cheerleaders would have us believe when they tell us we must sacrifice for the ‘common good’. There is no freedom in hunger.

I always find it ironic that those who dogmatically subscribe to neoliberalism make the arguments about sacrifice and common good. What they are saying is go it alone–survival of the fittest, where the fittest are those who have the most money. Most of whom were born into this wealth. I don’t see those who are advocating this stance making any meaningful sacrifice. Instead, they make more money while those who can bear it least carry all the risk and sacrifice (remember dividends while people starve).

Let us stop asking that question–what can people in those circumstances do? In the current context it is not appropriate. Let us instead ask what needs to change? How is the system creating the conditions of hardship and want? What can we collectively do about it? We are a wealthy country. We have the resources.

Why Geography Matters: Food Insecurity

I teach on a module called Why Geography Matters. This is required for all our level 1 students. We start the module with a section on the history of geographical thought. I have 5 hours to talk about the emergence of the discipline and how we approach knowledge production. We discuss things like should geography have a cannon, whose experience and understanding are not included in the dominant narrative of the discipline’s emergence, and we consider if knowledge contributions are separate from or inseparable from the person who thought it. The students offer insightful reflections on these questions.

The module then focuses on the specific research of two human geographers and two physical geographers. We ask the students to consider what unites us as a discipline. Are we the same or are we parts of a whole that when taken together provide a complex understanding of the systems that shape and influence our social, physical and mental worlds? There are some shared themes and concepts that we deploy in our research that aren’t core to the ways those in other disciplines investigate. What we think and how we engage with each other sediment into our landscapes in material ways just as physical processes shape those landscapes. Its a fascinating discipline with freedom to focus on every topic because geography is everywhere.

In addition to teaching the section on the history of geographical thought, I also discuss my research in one of the human geography sections. I focus on food insecurity in this section. I gave the first of two two-hour lectures this week.

Food insecurity is absolutely geographical. The scale at which we approach the issue makes visible certain geographical relationships as well as certain issues. Going from one scale to another reveals new problems and solutions. Being specific about where we locate the problem is important for this reason. My focus is at the local and household scales. I talk about how foodscapes are shaped by the ways we go about our lives. Individual and organisational practices make our material landscapes in very specific ways, which then has implications for what is possible and what are barriers for those living in those places. If we are going to have a fairer world, we need to understand these processes and repair the damage that has been inflicted on places.

We use lecture capture at the university so that students can catch up or listen again to the content of our sessions. Here is my lecture for this week. https://echo360.org.uk/media/7d480e37-7966-4322-9321-559cc0a65afe/public

Just a note of clarity. In the lecture I say that my parents did not help me to purchase my first home. My mother, however did help me to purchase the house that I currently live in and I am forever grateful for that. I was recently divorced and in my 50’s. Through this act of support she has enabled me to feel somewhat more secure about my old age. As I see my university pension being cut and my wages in real terms decreasing year on year, this is such an important contribution to my wellbeing. I am lucky in this regard. People who are not able to receive this sort of support from their families are absolutely at a disadvantage.

GODAN seminar on Food Insecurity and Food Ladders as a way repair communities.

In June I gave a webinar to an international audience who are part of the Global Open DAta Network (GODAN). GODAN’s mission is to harness data to eradicate hunger and malnutrition across the globe.

The talk is in three parts.

In the first segment I outline the four dimensions of food security as defined by the UN FAO include affordability, access, utilisation and consistency over time. The FAO argue that all four pillars must be in place for a household to be food secure.  While the lack of affordability is well recognised as a cause of food insecurity in wealthy countries, other dimensions are often overlooked.  Furthermore, some groups are more likely to experience greater vulnerability across these four pillars compared to others. 

In the second segment I look at the effects of food insecurity on individuals and households. These effects sediment into landscapes.  Moreover, these effects reinforce and amply the problems that give rise to food insecurity in the first place.

In the final segment I talk about my Food Ladders framework. Food Ladders is an evidence-based framework that helps to structure local responses to food insecurity and repair its effects through targeted interventions that catch those who need it most, build the capacity of those who are able, and facilitate transformation in ways that support all of four food security pillars.

You can watch the video here:

Megan Blake, GODAN Food Poverty webinar series

Food insecurity, its effects and ways to address them

We all eat. As many as 1 in 5 people in the UK, through no fault of their own struggle to access the food they need to live a healthy life. Our research shows that moderately and mildly disabled people and children–disproportionately bear the burden of hunger. It is not right that in a wealthy country like the UK there is such hardship and struggle. In this short video I talk about the causes and the effects of food insecurity and suggest some of the ways that we can act locally to help reduce hunger and hardship and stress and distress in our communities by helping them repair the damage that food insecurity causes.

For ease I am also attaching the slides so you click through them.