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The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted questions in many aspects of our daily living. One of the fundamental areas affecting everyone is food and shopping for food. Our usual routine has become considerably restricted and for the majority, food is the main activity or topic of conversation.

Despite initial signs of stockpiling behaviour and rising panic over possible food shortages or specific products, generally, the amount of food available is still in good supply. Moreover, serious questions have been asked about the emergency preparedness, readiness or ability of the nation’s food supply chain to feed the whole population.

The ability of a government to provide sufficient food for its population is termed ‘Food Security’.

‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (UN-FAO World Food Summit 1996, 2012).

Where a country, region, household or individual is unable to achieve this, it is defined as being ‘Food Insecure’.

Globally, for reasons such as extreme climate, drought and famine, in addition to economic or political reasons, food insecurity is more likely to be experienced at a national or regional level in low- and middle-income countries. Nonetheless, as research over the past few decades has shown, even high-income countries such as the UK have an increasing number of households who are unable to access sufficient amount or quality of socially acceptable foods on a regular basis (1).

This accounts both for the rising number of families or individuals in our society experiencing food poverty, who go without food several days a month, and for the widening nutritional inequalities that contribute to the social disparities in health and wellbeing in this country.

The need for food security is apparent during times such as the present, when the need to manage access and availability of food supply to the whole population is critical. Nonetheless, there appears to be limited talk or action on this matter of national security; the retail sector is largely left to its own devices to ‘ration’ certain commodities for example ‘four tins of [beans] per household …’; whilst this addresses availability – there is less urgency to address affordability and accessibility (to all). I don’t know if I am imagining this, but certain products seem to be more expensive, or perhaps it’s just that the number of special offers, normally evident in response to ’supermarket wars’, have all but disappeared.

There is a large proportion of the population whose ‘usual’ shopping habits rely on this as a means of securing sufficient quantity and (nutritional) quality of safe and culturally acceptable foods. The usual strategies they adopt to avoid food insecurity are therefore disrupted and their ability to adapt to alternative food scenarios will require support. This I will address in a further blog.

Despite, impressively, a long tradition in the UK of having a dedicated Ministry of Food Control (1916-21) and, subsequently, Ministers of Food (1938-58), responsibility for food security rests now with the Department of Education, Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA, 2018), whilst economic and commercial aspects (trade) rest with other ministerial departments. During this time food systems and nutrition issues to safeguard the population’s food and nutritional requirements were introduced, for example National Kitchens, school meals legislation and meals. 

The modern food system is, however, globalised and therefore complex and is driven by political and economic factors rather than population health (2). A Food System is a complex collection of many different factors including different government or ministerial departments, food manufacturers, food retailers and social food providers. As a sector it provides things other than food to satisfy physiological requirements, for example, it is an important employer of many people (UK ^13%) and is a significant overall contributor to the national Gross Domestic Product (^7%), which is the market value of all final goods and services from a nation in a given time period. At the same time it has a carbon footprint and, therefore, the farming and agriculture sector (under DEFRA) and food retailers (industry, economy) have huge potential to lead on influencing a shift in the nation’s food supply and consumption towards more sustainable goals.  

Unfortunately, a ‘national food system’ will not happen in a country where responsibility for the different elements of the food system work in silo and key sectors remain under opposing government departments. Moreover, where profit – although necessary to sustain the contribution by the sector to GDP and maintaining employment for people – is valued above other considerations. Consequently, in some societies such as ours the food system continues to be determined by the need to generate considerable profits for the shareholders of the small number of private and global organisations in our current ‘food system’. The latter will unfortunately require a massive shift in political ideology. Perhaps post the COVID-19 pandemic is this time – where support for public services and public sector workers is the highest in decades, and people recognise the need for community support and cohesiveness – from the community up.

The need to balance both social justice and profitability is, undeniable; however, all systems function best when they reach a certain balance. It is time now to reconsider and reset what balance is in our Food System.

Others are asking whether we need to introduce a National Food System. The idea builds on the principles of our National Health Service, which was introduced following the government‘s Beveridge report (1942) to address and overcome the uncoordinated provision and limited access, primarily restricted by affordability, of formal medical, charitable and informal, unregulated health care practice. 

A National Food Service will need to recognise the complexity of a National Food System and go beyond the current narrow and predominantly biomedical view of the role of food in our society, as a primary means of preventing all ills… and a ‘consequence of fecklessness and greed’, and apparently ‘mostly by the lower classes’. To quote the widely used mantra of public health nutritionists, food is more than a physiological requirement; it is also a social and cultural requirement. Therefore a National Food System would, as its NHS counterpart aspires towards, be there to coordinate the different actors and agencies within this complex food system to achieve the UN goal of Food Security for all.

References:

1. Kennedy L Hunger and malnutrition in an affluent society. Public Lecture 13/12/15. University of Chester; Kennedy L, Woodall A. (2018) Socio-economic causes of undernutrition. In: Advanced Nutrition and Dietetics in Nutrition Support. Eds. Mary Hickson, Sarah Smith, Kevin Whelan https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118993880.ch1.3

2. Clare Bambra, Katherine Smith and Lynne Kennedy (2011) Politics and Health (Chapter 8) In: Health Studies Jane Wills & Naidoo J (Eds.) 3rd edition Palgrave Macmillan London. pp. 257-287

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