MPs demand dedicated minister as food bank use soars amid coronavirus pandemic
The report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says food bank use has surged during the pandemic. (PA)
The Government is being urged to appoint a dedicated minister and consider a legal “right to food” amid warnings that the coronavirus pandemic has left charities stretched in the fight against hunger.
A new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says use of food banks in March and April “effectively doubled” on the same period last year at the same time as donations were squeezed.
The cross-party group of MPs says the Government should weigh up whether the £63million it has handed to councils to help those struggling to afford food goes far enough.
And it calls for a designated minister to “draw together policy across departments on food supply, nutrition and welfare” in anticipation of new food security challenges in the wake of the pandemic.
The early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak were marked by long queues and empty shelves at supermarkets as Brits rushed to stock up.
The committee says while the Government “worked well” with retailers to keep supermarkets stocked, it “does not appear to have anticipated the situation” — even though bulk buying of food was “a reasonable and predictable response to the expectation that more meals would need to be eaten at home”.
It says ministers caused “public frustration” by urging the public to shop online even though retailers were unable to cope with that surge in demand.
The report also paints a grim picture of hunger in Britain, with the group of MPs saying 4.9 million adults and 1.7 million children currently lack access to “sufficient, safe and nutritious food” — a crisis worsened by Covid-19.
They urge ministers to boost efforts to tackle the “abhorrent” problem of food waste — and say the Government should consider a new legislative ‘right to food’.
“We are aware that a combination of ending furlough and a possible second wave of coronavirus may conspire to make the level and severity of food insecurity significantly higher,” the committee warns.
“Therefore, the Government urgently needs a sustainable plan to mitigate the possible growth of food insecurity through a combination of financial and food supply strategies.”
Launching the report, committee chairman and Conservative MP Neil Parish said: "The lockdown may have eased, but problems with food security are far from over.
“Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a shocking spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“It is therefore essential that the Government appoints a new Minister for Food Security who will stop this issue falling between the cracks.”
Elsewhere in its report, the Efra committee says key workers in the food supply chain were not given guidance on protective equipment and social distancing quickly enough at the start of the crisis.
And they urge the Government to work with councils and the devolved administrations to avoid a repeat of that situation.
The cross-party group also wants the Government to find out how many workers in food processing could be “disincentivised” to follow coronavirus self-isolation guidelines because of the working terms, including a lack of statutory sick pay for those in casual employment.
Mr Parish said: “The Government’s actions to lock-down the country and close businesses were necessary, but they had huge impacts on the food sector and on food security.
“Defra’s response once the crisis hit was commendable, but despite warnings from other countries, it seemed as though the Government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during this crisis.
“The pandemic also highlighted our reliance on key workers, and I unreservedly thank those in the food supply chain whose work kept the nation fed throughout the crisis.”
Responding to the report, a Government spokesperson said: “As we have seen in recent months, the UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain – which is able to cope with unprecedented pressures.
“During this time the government has worked closely with the food industry to prepare for a range of scenarios and has invested record levels of funding to help people get the food they need.
“Our Covid-19 taskforce has also brought together expertise across government to tackle the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic and ensure those most vulnerable in our society are protected.”
The report comes a day after the first part of the Government’s long-awaited National Food Strategy, carried out for ministers by Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby, said the coronavirus pandemic was likely to leave a “miserable” legacy of rising unemployment, poverty and hunger.
It urged ministers to dramatically increase the number of children eligible for free school meals and boost the value of its Healthy Start vouchers scheme aimed at providing financial help for parents to buy milk, fruit and vegetables and vitamins.