Our children are hungry: do they have a right to be free from food poverty?

For millions of children around the world, school meals are a lifeline. With many schools still closed nationwide in more than 104 countries, the World Food Programme estimates that more than 265 million children are not receiving their school meal. Child hunger — exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic — is a global problem. But with a new reality, one that has served to exacerbate and widen existing inequalities, the gravity of the challenges facing children in England have come to the fore.

The agony of hunger has become a norm for millions of children in the UK

Last week, UK MPs voted against extending free school meals into the school holidays until Easter 2021, a measure intended to mitigate against the growing hunger crisis that has left as many as a fifth of children beset by food insecurity. MPs rejected Labour’s motion by 322 votes to 261, with a government majority of 61. The decision has been widely criticised, leading to many local councils, schools and businesses taking responsibility to ensure that children do not suffer this week.

School meals are a lifeline for many children

The new face of a long-existing problem?

It is undeniable that a stark hunger problem exists in a highly unequal Britain, where 22% of people and 30% of children live in poverty. A 2018 report by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. But these statistics, largely attributed to punishing fiscal austerity measures unfairly targeting the most vulnerable in society, are pre-pandemic.

Empty plates left outside the local Tory HQ and Con Club after Southend West MP voted against extending free school meals into the school holidays @ScotteeIsFat

Whose responsibility is it?

The recognition of the right to food as a fundamental human right dates back to the early years of the United Nations. Now, the right to food is widely recognised at the international level. Considering that only states are parties to various international agreements, they have progressive and immediate obligations, and are ultimately accountable for compliance and primarily responsible for the full realisation of the right to food for all persons within their territory. Article 11 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which can be considered the core provision with regard to the right to food and its protection under international law, confirms ‘the right to adequate food’, adding ‘the right of everyone to be free from hunger’. General Comment 12 provides further detail as to the normative quality of the right, affirming that the right to adequate food is indivisibly linked to the inherent dignity of the human person and is indispensable for the fulfilment of other human rights. General Comment 12 further identifies three types of obligations: to respect, protect and fulfil (facilitate and provide).

A concerted approach is necessary

It has been argued that extending free school meals would only ever be a transient, short-term solution to address this issue that is rooted in entrenched inequity. And to some extent, this is true — this issue requires a reconsideration of existing power dynamics, structural inequalities, and the viability of existing solutions. A very transparent consideration of why this is still a persisting experience in modern day Britain — of the root causes — is needed. It has been argued before that the UK government has been in a state of denial over the stark issue of rising poverty levels and perhaps we have been. Yet, we must also consider the here and now. We need concerted, responsive action to ensure that this most fundamental of human rights is protected and that our children and their parents are not vilified for the insecurity and uncertainty they face. Families need more resources to handle these material hardships, and supply these resources we must. Now, more than ever, our children should be prioritised and protected.

Credit @SDupp

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