The crises in health and social care are rightly at the forefront of people’s anger about the government’s lack of preparation for an inevitable pandemic, as we now face with Covid-19. People are dying unnecessarily. An integral element, simmering under the surface, is the fragmentation of public health nutrition services that should provide food security within our communities so vulnerable people are kept in good nutritional status. Yet even before this crisis there was an estimated 3 million malnourished people, with an aging population this will increase, and 8 million people in food insecurity. As lockdowns began, research from the Food Foundation estimated 3 million households were already experiencing hunger. Inequalities underpin the right to life in this crisis: mortality rates for people living in deprived areas are double that for those in less deprived areas, and interlocks with ethnicity. Some highlight ‘obesity’ but is not the problem food and health inequalities? Poverty underpins people’s lack of access to foods of good nutritional quality. Rising poverty levels are driven by erosion of welfare state and neoliberal restructuring of our economy through deregulation, precarity and low pay. Child poverty has increased by 100, 000 over the past year with around 30% of all children living in poverty. Food poverty is increasing and requires structural change not short term solutions. To protect child health and meaningfully tackle poverty a host of fiscal steps are urgently required to enable families to buy food, such as basic living income and immediate action to increase welfare. This does not remove the need for a food security system that ensures a basic level of socially acceptable nutrition is available for all; that includes universal free school meals and hot meals for older people. Public health nutrition is more than just food. It’s about ‘social’ nutrition: the infrastructure of community resources that enable people to eat together and to collectively care.
The networks of care within our communities have broken down as the infrastructure providing services and civil spaces have closed. There is little research that documents how the spending cuts and restructuring within public health has impacted public health nutrition. However, research is underway that aims to inform the inevitable public enquiry on Covid-19. As socialists, we need to go further and give a call to action to stop further privatisation and charitisation of PHN. Fundamentally, the interests of private industry and charity conflict with the welfare state. Despite the altruism of many involved, these organisations cannot meet current or future needs which will increase in the looming economic depression. They cannot enable the voices of those who are suffering in our communities.
Privatisation of PHN began under New Labour as food companies were brought into public health policy. From the 2000s non-NHS providers entered PHN. Local government spending cuts and austerity hit prevention budgets including nutrition-based, child weight management and life style interventions. Cuts to nutrition-related services are broadly felt because nutritional health is cross-departmental involving education, community engagement, adult and children and young people’s services and a range of professions including health visiting. Nutrition was embedded in the Sure Start programme. Since 2010, 1000 children centres have closed as £1 billion has been cut from budgets. The number of community centres, lunch clubs and meals on wheels for the elderly has been decimated. In this crisis, the role of schools in feeding children has shown their centrality in community life. Yet there are barriers due to privatisation that limit a strategic approach. For example, in most neighbourhoods, schools have the only industrial kitchens capable of preparing and distributing foods to large numbers of people. Yet access to these is mostly controlled by private food companies, including multinationals, that hold the catering contracts. So, in many ways communities are isolated, disconnected from power and the resources to enable local solutions. Social theorists argue that ‘austerity localism’ brought cuts, disempowered local communities creating distrust and disconnect with local government. Community involvement is further limited by democratic deficits that are created by material constraints and lack of structural mechanisms. All this suggests that it will be harder for public health to connect with communities and understand the scale of their need. While not supporting the authoritarian Chinese State, community engagement was integral to the Chinese response.
Responsibility for public health nutrition lies with local government who have enlisted third sector organisations (TSOs), social entrepreneurs, and food industry to construct the state’s food aid response in this emergency. From a dietetic standpoint, it is concerning that food banks can distribute foods that may unintentionally cause harm. For example, food banks only need warn of potential allergens, if they are set up as a business. Food banks can distribute infant formula. This is risky for example, for vulnerable families with complex needs and should not be the responsibility of food banks. It suggests a lack of a cross-departmental strategic approach that links with professionals such as nutritionists and health visiting teams. Providing food at the general level of need is also problematic. The voluntary sector has strategic limitations in its ability to scale up according to need. In London, developing a strategic approach has been spearheaded by NGOs at City level, and boroughs through food action alliances. The food alliances are networks of non-state and non-industry providers, involving a range of activities such as food banks, food growers, community kitchens – supermarkets- fridges. They connect with local government through their public health departments. As crisis hit, they quickly turned their energies to organising emergency food aid. Phenomenal efforts are being made to scale up to meet increased demands. However, they face barriers. For example, many TSOs are involved in competitive processes to win and maintain local government contracts. Funding is often short term; a precarious situation for TSOs. In this crisis they need to collect evidence for ‘sustainability’, that is, to secure future funding.
Despite the existence of resilience structures at regional and borough levels, strategies to meet increased food needs were not apparent. Indeed, there was little national food strategy (Lang, 2020). In London, as the crisis unfolded new charitable funding streams emerged. Four weeks into the crisis, the owner of London’s free newspaper, Evening Standard, and son of Russian oligarch intervened to feed ‘vulnerable’ Londoners through a new charitable alliance. This centralises food surplus supplies and distribution across boroughs. This role of charities is legitimised by London’s Mayor, albeit likely unintentionally. This upscaling of charities to deliver such large-scale logistical challenges raises concerns about the future direction for PHN.
Altruism continues with the emergence of new food banks, food project social entrepreneurs and the Mutual Aids. With roots in 19th Century social welfare based on fraternalism not paternalism, these are today on the one hand wonderful, inspiring acts of solidarity but what will they become? There are many questions to consider: Do they adopt a public health perspective that considers inequalities including class and ethnicity or are these individual acts of charity and kindness? What is the class composition of the Mutual Aids? Will there be unintended consequences? Within communities, will they bridge or increase class divides and inequalities? Do they provide uniform and equitable support? Do they contribute to food democracy within our communities? How are they accountable?
These and other new solidarity networks enter into the terrain of unevenly shared and disjointed public health resources. Across London, a postcode lottery in public health nutrition pre-dates this Covid crisis. For example, eligibility for free school meals depends on the political priorities of local councils as well as government policy. Universal free school meals (UFSM) for all primary age children are provided in only 4 of the 33 boroughs. This includes children in families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). Their temporary access to FSM during this crisis will be withdrawn as schools reopen. A cruel, intentional political act belonging to the ideology of hostile environment; socially divisive among young children teaching them that ‘others’ are undeserving and go hungry. What will Labour councils do when the onus for feeding children with NRPF returns to them?
The differences between and within boroughs is seen at the level of schools. Schools take different approaches with some providing food for all children in-need and others based on FSM eligibility. Seven weeks since its introduction, the government’s voucher scheme that replaced FSM continues to be problematic, adding to the suffering of families; some schools are bypassing with their own voucher systems. Schools are filling the gaps but cannot do so as a cross-borough strategic approach due to privatisation. In contrast to London, New York took a pan-city approach with 400 public schools providing food for all adults and children in-need.
Despite incredible efforts, TSOs, have made it clear they cannot fulfil the function to feed ALL in need: ‘There is not enough free food or volunteer capacity to feed all economically vulnerable people through local authority and charitable means’. Instead they argue that central government should provide the financial means to enable everyone to buy food that meets their nutritional and cultural needs. From an ethical view it is irresponsible that central government assigns responsibility to local authorities and TSOs without giving the resources to carry out responsibility. It is well established that emergency food aid systems need to be nationally co-ordinated strategies. The UK government’s use of the armed forces for food distribution to the 1.5 million shielded clinically extremely vulnerable people, is recognition of the level of strategic organisation that is needed. It shows that only central government has the resources and therefore responsibility to feed ALL people in-need, across all vulnerabilities. It is not possible for this to be a function of TSOs. How do TSOs and local government decide ‘vulnerability’ without interlocking socially divisive ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor? These are political decisions. Solving hunger takes political will (Caraher and Furey, 2018).
The politics of privatisation and charitisation are felt most strongly on the frontline by the community food activists some engaged for decades in fighting to hold their communities together. One such leading activist and mother, Maya in South London, said
“I’m tired of fighting, fighting, fighting”. Yet she remains on the frontline running the local food bank/social supermarket. She says: diets will slump in areas like this … people use social supermarket but can’t get the foods children want … fresh fruits and vegetables have short shelf life ..we have to respond to new issues that come along …the hidden people that now come out who are in extreme poverty. While caring for her community she comments on new oppression by powerful borough groups and lack of accountability: people are going crazy with this food thing … there’s a lot of money around food …all they want to do is help the ‘poor’ people … they’re doing deliveries, taking selfies and putting it on twitter … some people are stepping on our heads… others are cashing in on it.” On a part-time London living wage, she finds her own living standards are slipping backwards.
What will emerge from this crisis? Local authorities will soon be planning their recovery processes. With depleted and finite funds will we see a redefining of ‘vulnerable’; a new means testing for referrals to emergency food aid? We are facing a long recession/depression with increased food poverty, malnutrition and hunger. This is potentially on an unprecedented scale. How will the increased charitisation together with ongoing cuts impact the public health infrastructure and jobs? Who will be providing food for public health? These are important questions for all of us in PHN whether Director of Public Health or unpaid community food bank worker. How we tackle feeding EVERYONE in-need is not just a practical question but a basic ethical one concerning food rights and health equity that requires reconnecting with our communities and schools for grassroots participation in decision-making. Enabling participation requires tackling the material conditions, of work and physical food environments, that underpin health inequalities.
A weak public health nutrition infrastructure, including diminished community services, contributes to undernutrition, reduced immunity, more illness, more hospital visits. Pre-Covid estimates showed £200 million could be saved in health and social care spend if greater attention is paid to caring for the nutritional status of vulnerable adults. This would contribute to the inequality seen in the distribution of Covid-19 death rates. Our right to nutritious food is essential to enable our rights to good health and longevity free from illness. To make this a reality, for all, will require fiscal measures that guarantee universal basic living income, that integrates food costs, as well as massive investment in communities and public health nutrition. One among many lessons for how we plan for food and health resilience in times of crisis, is to meaningfully, democratically involve our communities and workforces on the ground.
Sharon Noonan-Gunning, Registered Dietitian, PhD in Food Policy.
Caraher M., Furey, S. (2018) The Economics of Emergency Food Aid Provision: A Financial, Social and Cultural Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan. London.
Lang, T (2020) Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. Pelican Books.