'Bring in rationing to avoid food crisis'

Food policy experts say market mechanisms not enough to feed the nation during coronavirus crisis.
24 March 2020 , Katie Coyne

Rationing is needed to avoid a food crisis during the corona virus epidemic as demand for food banks has sky rocketed while supply has hit rock bottom, due to layoffs and panic buying, say experts.

Food policy experts have written to the prime minister urging him to take action to avert a food crisis as, “nudge thinking is no longer sufficient”.

The letter written by three of the country’s top food policy academics has called for by immediately announcing a rationing scheme based on the Eatwell Guide on an open, equitable basis. They argue public messaging about food supply is weak and unconvincing.

“It might be regrettable, but stockpiling or uncivil behaviour in stores are signs that appeals to restraint or repetition of the ‘we are in it together’ message are wearing thin when it comes to food supply,” they write.

Another concern is that those already on low incomes and in receipt of benefits – and in many cases already struggling to feed themselves before this crisis. They urge that a cash boost is given, or a national voucher scheme redeemable for nutritionally sound purchases is introduced.

The authors point to the fact that under the UN’s criteria more than 8.4m people in the UK are food insecure: “Food banks are closing, and those remaining open have supply shortages yet rocketing demands. Some very hungry people are being ‘gate-kept’ out of food banks because systems for allocating vouchers are failing. Food banks do not and cannot resolve structural inequalities, income deficits, or lack of access.”

They add: “Diet is a key factor in lowering life-expectancy for the poorest people and weakening their immune systems. The current crisis risks exacerbating diet-related inequalities, which could have long-term consequences.”

Provisions need to be made so that people who are in quarantine or self isolating can get food, as they are told not to go outside but then the delivery times for online supermarket shopping is booked up a month in advance – or in some cases simply temporarily closed to any new orders.

“This is a time when market mechanisms are insufficient. Supermarkets cannot be expected to ration for health or filter food purchasing according to need, yet need out to be paramount. If the ‘we are all in it together’ principle reigns, then now is the time for health to shape access to food.”

A final recommendation made is that the Agriculture Bill be amended to include a clause to ensure that the people of the UK will be “fed well, healthily, equitably, and sustainably”.

One of the report’s author’s Erik Millstone, professor of science policy University of Sussex, said: “There is a need to make sure people don’t suffer malnutrition or severe hunger, and that it is equitable.”

Millstone was wary of moves to relax competition rules between the supermarkets suggesting that while the big players may be able to manage supply this could leave smaller independent shops out in the cold. These are the shops that many elderly, disabled and people without cars rely on and if these shops can’t get hold of supplies, or are facing huge price hikes from suppliers, this vulnerable group will be hit.

The letter was written before yesterday’s government’s lockdown announcement and was also signed by professor of food policy, University of London, Tim Lang, and professor and director, sustainable places research Cardiff University, Terry Marsden.

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