The UK Part I: Scottish inspiration

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Admit it. When I say Scotland, you think of beautiful scenery, golf courses, bagpipes, castles, the Loch Ness monster, guys in kilts, Braveheart (Mel Gibson in a kilt), and maybe a referendum to split off from the UK. Scottish food brings to mind deep fried Mars bars and haggis (sheep stomachs filled with sheep heart and other vegetarian delights). 

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Well, get this. Scotland is at the cutting edge of food policy. I had the opportunity in early November to meet with food policy leaders and discovered that they are far ahead of our thinking in the U.S.

Following a UK-wide surge of food banks (see next blog post) over the past 7 years, the Scottish government and leading NGOs Nourish Scotland and Menu for Change (part of Oxfam UK) among others have taken some very interesting steps:

In 2015, the Scottish government commissioned a working group on food poverty to make recommendations to the government on future actions. It issued a report in June 2016, entitled “ Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland.” “The Dignity Report,” proposed that the solution to food insecurity be grounded in a right to food approach, and that the government seek to meet the UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by 2030.

Most importantly, the report lays the groundwork for moving away from food banking. It asks, “ How can society’s response to food insecurity, and especially hunger, be grounded in dignity?” The report goes on to explicitly exclude emergency food aid from a dignified anti-hunger approach: “the right to food is understood as a matter of justice rather than charity.”  It lays out four core principles to a dignified approach to food insecurity:

·      People who have direct experience with food insecurity must have a seat at the table in running programs and centers related to food security;

·      A dignified system is one which recognizes the social and transformative value of food to the community;

·      Impoverished persons should have opportunities to contribute through volunteering, producing food, learning new skills, or sharing their existing skills.

·      Impoverished persons should ensure that as far as possible people are able to choose what they eat.

Finally, the working group recommended that the Scottish government only fund groups that “demonstrate how its approach promotes dignity and is helping to transition away from emergency food aid as the primary response.” The Scottish government has moved forward with this recommendation.

 People's Palace in Glasgow

People's Palace in Glasgow

The Dignity report is part of a compelling narrative in Scotland – that everyone should lead a decent life and that the government has a central role in guaranteeing that decency. There are some great examples of how the government is supporting these efforts in civil society:

·      A network of 43 community cafes exists in Edinburgh, some  neighborhood-based and others supporting specific sectors of society, such as autistic children. The National Health Service provides funding to support the network that links these cafes, as well as many other projects that build social capital.

·      The Scottish government funds organizations to transition away from a charitable approach through its £1 million per year Fair Food Transformation Fund. It gives grant of £20,000 per year and up.

·      The National Lottery supports Menu for Change in leading an action-learning project in three Scottish communities to assess the effectiveness of community-based strategies to end food insecurity.

·      Through the support of the faith community, the Poverty Truth Commission cultivates the leadership of impoverished persons to speak up about their lives as well as to mentor civil servants about the realities of living in poverty. One of their accomplishments was to convince the National Health Service to offer a free hotline for individuals needing to speak to them about their benefits rather than charging them 24 pence per minute. One Poverty Truth Commissioner that I met said it had cost her £8 (about $10) for a phone call!

The Scottish context has been inspirational in its desire to close the Pandora’s box of food banking. I note a real urgency in the tone of advocates, as they remain fearful that food banks could become a permanent feature of the Scottish landscape. They see their existence as undermining human dignity and the government’s responsibility for ensuring the right to food.  Advocates, the government and even food bankers are looking for an exit strategy to ensure that people’s food needs are met in a sustainable and dignified way.

Moving into 2018, the Scottish government is moving forward with a Good Food Nation Bill. This cross-cutting piece of legislation includes numerous policy prescriptions and would codify the right to food in Scottish law. It would establish a principle of sustainability into law, as well as create a citizen commission to promote transparency and community involvement.