Food for the Poor

Food for the Poor Conference organised by the Socialist Health Association

Friday, 8th March 2002 Scottish Trades Union Centre 333 Woodlands Road Glasgow G3 6NG

In the UK four million people cannot afford to eat a healthy diet.

“Research interviewers (in 1993-1996) encountered examples of poverty and deprivation of a degree which they could hardly believe possible in late 20th century Britain. This striking association of absolute poverty with the risk of infant death remains as clear as when first described by Templeman in 1892”. Confidential Inquiry into Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy

If you are concerned about the diet of poor people and the effects on their health and want to do something about it then come to our conference.


10.00am Porridge, Tea and Coffee

10.15am Chair Dr David Player, Socialist Health Association Scotland

Welcome and introductions

10.20 am What is poverty today? Rev Paul Nicolson, Chairman, ZACCHAEUS 2000 TRUST

11 am Implementing a Diet Action Plan for Scotland Bill Gray, Scottish Community Diet Project

12. am The campaign for Free School Meals John McAllion MSP Dundee East

1 pm LUNCHEON: Bannocks, Scotch Pies, Irn-Bru, Haggis and neaps and other local culinary delights should be available.

2pm Cooking and Eating Hazel Andrews Lead Dietician for Health Promotion Manchester

2.30 pm The Political Economy of Food: Panel of speakers

3.30pm Malcolm Chisholm MSP Minister for Health and Community Care

Peter Murray reports on the conference

The Socialist Health Association has staged a highly effective conference on food policy which reflected widespread support for the idea of Universal Free School Meals.

It was held in Glasgow on 8 March, and opened with the provision of healthy Scottish foods such as porridge. Around 60 delegates came from as far apart as Bournemouth and Shetland and the event proved an excellent showcase for strategies to improve the health of the Scottish nation.

Key SHA activists in Scotland, including Dr Ali Syed, Chair of the Scottish branch of the SHA, and Dr David Player reflected on Scotland’s appalling record on heart disease and on recent reports charting big increases in childhood obesity across the UK.

Free school meals for all

The conference was addressed by John Mcallion MSP, a well known Scottish Labour politician and co-sponsor with Tommy Sheridan MSP (SSP) and Alex Neil MSP (SNP) of the Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill. Mr Mcallion argued that the provision of free school meals to all Scotland’s children would not only remove social stigma but would be a powerful weapon in improving the long term health of the nation. The so-called ‘targeting’ of free school meals leaves many other poor children unprovided for.

He reflected on the power of services free at the point of use, such as the NHS, which had been a cornerstone of Labour philosophy. He emphasised that the Bill seeks to secure free school meals of a proper nutritional standard, which would greatly improve the diet of Scottish children and provide enormous benefits to long-term health in Scotland.

”At a cost of only £174 million per annum, this represents an excellent investment in our Children’s Health”

Tommy Sheridan MSP, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party and co-sponsor of the Bill, spoke from the floor and recounted his recent experience of having to pay 47p in a school canteen for a bottle of water, whilst a sugary drink was only 42p! The Bill calls provision of free water to every child, and was not only warmly commended as the way forward in Scotland, but as a measure which should be adopted in England and Wales.

Debt and food poverty

A unique take on the values underlying universal free school meals was given by the Reverend Paul Nicolson of the Zaccheus Trust 2000.

”For me this is a faith thing. A vital part of most faiths is the idea of sitting down and taking a meal together. Children should be able to do this without money entering into it.”

He presented a session on the relationship of debt to food poverty. As the head of the Zacchaeus Trust he is constantly intervening to support poor people caught up in a debt trap.

“Some people are paying huge interest rates to companies such as the Provident and Crazy George. Because they are poor, they fail to service debts and end up making further cuts in their food bill”

Food co-operatives

The conference was also addressed by Bill Gray of the Scottish Diet Action Project, who highlighted the key role of food co-operatives and insisted that the Left needs to put healthy, accessible, and affordable food at the centre of its public health and anti-poverty strategies.

Recognising the problem of the multiples marketing, fatty, sugary, and unhealthy food, he said that the role of retailers is pivotal in any healthy food strategy. In response to questions about whether Scotland needs a food czar, Bill replied ‘where I come from we name our streets after Russian cosmonauts, not Russian oligarchs’.

The Conference also featured workshops in which delegates had to seek solutions to real case studies.

Fuel and food poverty

One of these studies featured a young single man living on benefits in a bed-sitter. He had no cooking facilities and just £8.23 to feed himself for three days. It was recognised that this is a virtually impossible task, especially without cooking facilities. The various case studies demonstrated how housing, fuel and food poverty are interconnected, and could only be solved by raising the incomes of poor people.

The conference was also addressed by Scotland’s newly appointed Health Minister, Malcolm Chisholm MSP. Malcolm was made welcome by delegates who still remember his principled stand on the cuts to single parent benefits, and he won plaudits for responding to questions rather than making a set piece speech.

Some disappointments

Many of the questions reflected the inherent tensions between those in the labour movement, who want more universal provision (such as free school meals) and those primarily in the Scottish Executive and Westminster government, who favour targeting. The Minister clearly disappointed many attendees when he voiced the Executive’s opposition to the Free School Meals Bill.

“This is a matter of targeting limited resources, and we feel this money could be better spent elsewhere.”

It was perhaps significant that some of the sharpest comments on government health strategy came from the trades unions.

Unison’s Glasgow Hospitals branch secretary Carolyn Leckie, for example, deplored the fact that ‘the poor and low waged are really paying the price for any improvements to services, whilst the rich enjoy low taxes and do not pay their fair share.’ Another delegate quipped ”we should feed the poor and eat the rich”.

However, the day also saw praise for Glasgow’s Labour led council, which has recently introduced universal free breakfasts for Glasgow’s school pupils. This was welcomed as another move away from the deserving poor mentality.

Where’s the fish?

The politics of food clearly remains central to the socialist discourse. One delegate reminded the conference of how Tories in the 1930’s had lectured the poor on how to make cod’s head soup. The MP Willie Gallagher asked ”what I want to know is what’s happened to the rest of the fish?”