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Britain’s broken food system

As food insecurity continues to rise, the Right to Food campaign argues argues our food production practices are unfit for purpose

6 to 7 minute read

The food aisle of an Asda supermarket

Multimillionaire food-writer Jamie Oliver has some advice for the one in five households, including 9.3 million adults and 4 million children currently experiencing food insecurity in the UK: check out his £1 Wonder website for ‘thrifty tips, helpful hacks and delicious recipes that won’t blow the budget’. Mind you, the energy costs are not included, access to white goods like a freezer is assumed, and you will need to put aside 2 hours and 40 minutes to cook your spag-bol. Even the BBC are at it with a page on their website dedicated to £1 meals.

Like many other personalised responses to the spiralling cost-of-living crisis focused entirely on money-saving frugality, Oliver and the BBC miss the bigger picture behind food inequality across the country. Poverty wages, zero-hour contracts, anti-social shift work, a punitive benefits system, widespread ‘food deserts’ and driving it all, rampant supermarket profiteering are all screened out, replaced instead by calls for individual responsibility to cook on a budget. Tory MP Lee Anderson will even rustle you up a meal for a mere 30p.

Working with FAWN – a network of food justice activists, academics and fellow workplace organisers – the Bakers Food and Allied Workers union has been backing the national Right to Food campaign in shifting attention from consumption habits to production practices. The country is not simply facing a cost-of-living crisis, but also a wages and earnings crisis.

The reality of Britain’s broken food system was laid out starkly in the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union survey in 2021, which showed one in five of its own members were relying on friends or family to provide meals, and 7.5 per cent using food banks. The workers charged with producing our food are themselves struggling to put it on the table.

Other unions have also reported their members, across sectors, depending on emergency food aid, or facing the same food insecurity that has led many other workplaces – from call centres to hospitals – setting up food banks and employee hardship funds. These are not isolated or contingent experiences. They correspond to a food system that is stacked from field to fork in favour of large retail supermarkets and corporate agribusinesses, and which systematically undervalues those who actually produce, process, transport, prepare, deliver and serve our food every day.

Superprofits for supermarkets

With food inflation hitting 17.5 per cent in March 2023 – costing the average household an additional £837 per year – supermarkets have been accused of feeding ‘greedflation’ through their ‘rocket and feather pricing’. Spikes in input costs are anticipated with sharp price rises, only to then be passed onto consumers more slowly when costs return to normal. Research from Unite the Union outlined how, whilst still historically high, ‘global commodity prices have been falling since Spring 2022 – while retail prices have been rising even higher’.

The Unite report suggests the Covid-19 pandemic also represented a highly lucrative period for the big three supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, who together have a market share of 56 per cent). The Big Three ‘saw their combined 2021 net profits increase to £3.2 billion, nearly doubling compared to 2019 (a 97 [per cent] increase)’ whilst ‘their combined net margin increased by 89 [per cent]’. In response, Tesco has paid its shareholders £704 million-worth of dividends in 2021-22, and started ‘an enormous share buyback scheme in July 2022 intended to have returned over £1 billion to shareholders by April 2023’.

Sainsbury’s CEO has warned that their competitors are now ‘inflating ahead of the market’, whilst former Iceland boss Bill Grimsey was candid enough to tell the Grocery Gazette that ‘There is enough to suggest some profiteering is going on and who is paying the price for that? The customer’. Tesco boss John Allan accepted that it was ‘entirely possible’ that some firms were out to make excessive profits at the expense of the poorest in society, but tried to shift the blame onto suppliers.

Supermarkets organize food bank collections whilst squeezing suppliers and their workers’ earnings and conditions

Excessive profiteering in food production and food retail runs parallel with low pay and, all too often, exploitative workplace practices, especially in food production. Workers in the food industry, so readily labelled as key workers during the pandemic continue to be poorly compensated in their pay, terms, and conditions, which is why so many feel insecure about food, whilst precarity and limited protection in the workplace is rife.

One of Scotland’s richest men, Alistair Salvesen, placed his company Dawnfresh Seafoods into administration, and deliberately avoided paying his workers monies and redundancy they were owed, directing them instead to the state to get statutory redundancy payments via the insolvency service. Orchard House Foods, owned by Venture Capitalists Elaghmore, repeated the trick a few short months later. Whilst Salveson and Elaghmore sauntered to the next ‘investments’, many of the very low paid workers at Dawnfresh and Orchard House had to turn to food banks when waiting on their owed money.

In the soft fruits sector, indenture-like practices of disciplining through debt, deportation threats, discrimination and bullying are commonplace among the thousands of migrant workers recruited annually through the government’s seasonal worker visa scheme. The price of constantly stocking supermarket shelves with summer fruits reliably and cheaply is paid by vulnerable men and women, far from their families and home countries, working unpredictable hours under extreme conditions, all hidden away in isolated sites of production with poor regulatory enforcement.

Against normalising food poverty in Britain’s broken food system

This normalisation of, and widespread reliance on food banks has become one of the great scandals of our times. If you’re a Universal Credit Claimant and/or low paid worker the chances are you have felt insecure about food, often lacking the means for sustenance, and have felt compelled to visit a food bank. The hypocrisy and contradictions are writ large around this accepted new normal. Supermarkets organize food bank collections whilst squeezing suppliers and their workers’ earnings and conditions.

The Trussell Trust and Deliveroo last year announced a partnership around a food donation collection service to encourage people to donate unopened food items to food banks, titled ‘Collecteroo’. Yet, as a gig economy pioneer, Deliveroo operates on a business model that relies on the erosion, if not full-scale removal of basic employment rights and protections.

Against this damaging naturalisation of food poverty, we want to understand and redress food inequality. Instead of food charity, we need food solidarity. This requires organising workers across the whole of the food chain. To radically democratise our broken food system, the labour movement needs to replicate the system itself, with union density from farm to fork. The generation of national institutions like producer and consumer cooperatives is important to shadow or challenge the tight oligopolistic grip of agribusiness and supermarket power. We must also remember that workers too are consumers, and that our labour often goes unpaid – particularly in households.

Our movement has a long history of mutual and cooperative forms of food retail, including relatively decommodified initiatives such as community kitchens and pantries. Facilitating a routine ‘social eating’ outside the household, in the form of all-year universal school meals, neighbourhood community restaurants, subsidised workplace canteens, or employee luncheon vouchers can help to shift daily eating practices from private households to public spaces. This has the democratic potential for workers’ rights, environmental sustainability, gender equality and racial justice.

The Food and Work Network has been inspired to act in this context. The connections between food and work are of significant political and social importance. We should not and will not accept that any citizen is lacking in the means to access the food they need.

The Right To Food Campaign seeks to eliminate food insecurity in the United Kingdom. It was set up by Ian Byrne MP

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