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Let them eat what? Free school meals and the new world order

Thanks to Marcus Rashford the national conversation is about food politics — now we must start making the connections between what we eat, how we farm and the most effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, writes ALAN SIMPSON

GOVERNMENTS fall more often from let-downs than lock-downs. That’s why Marcus Rashford’s “end child food-poverty” campaign has thrown British politics into a tiz. Who would have thought a young, black footballer would provide the leadership politics seems to lack?

Although Rashford consistently says “this is not about politics: it is about humanity,” everyone understands the umbilical links.

Knee-deep in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rashford’s free school meals campaign stepped in to confront another pandemic; child food poverty in Britain. Boris Johnson’s government may have spurned the call to extend free school-meals vouchers to spring 2021, but the issue is anything but dead. If anything, it opened up a chasm between the government and the people.

Rashford’s charity appeal has already raised over £30 million in cash, and unquantifiable amounts in kind. Shops, cafes and companies have piled in with food donations.

Household offers to deliver hot food pour in to local food charities. Football fans boycott “pay per view” charges to watch matches on TV, sending the money they save to his food poverty campaign. Football clubs have matched the amounts raised by players and fans, playing their own part in a national “feed the kids” campaign.

Against all this, the government’s response looks pitiful. Claims that the (temporary) increase in universal credit covers the food poverty gap are met with scepticism or derision. Claims that it’s an issue best left to local authorities are equally derided; knowing that local councils are struggling with massive underfunding. Tory MPs in marginal seats know they are no longer walking a tightrope but walking the plank.

Backed by an array of supermarkets, companies, charities and communities, Rashford’s Taskforce picked up on three basic demands set out in the (government-commissioned) National Food Strategy Review:

Expand free school meals to every child from a household on universal credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 1.5m children aged seven to 16.

Expand existing school holiday food and activities programmes to support all children on free school meals in all areas of England, instead of the current 50,000 children that are helped.

Increase the value of the Healthy Start vouchers — which help parents with children under the age of four and pregnant women buy some basic foods — from £3.10 to £4.25 per week, and expand it to all those on universal credit or equivalent, reaching an additional 290,000 people.

This is the scale of intervention needed by the 2.4 million children currently living in food poverty. But it doesn’t stop with the kids.

Patrolling the pandemic

The Covid-19 furore in Parliament always revolves around lockdown periods, with only a limited grasp of wider issues. Without doubt, getting the “R” rate of reinfection below 1 is a critical part of Covid-19 containment. Without doubt, hygiene standards and safe separation distances are important too.

Without doubt, a vaccine (at some stage) will make a big difference. But Britain is one of the few countries in Europe where the use of simpler dietary and nutritional measures doesn’t even get into the debate, and never beyond the level of government “advice.”

In Spain, researchers identified that 82 per cent of Covid-19 patients admitted to one of their hospitals had really low levels of vitamin D. Elsewhere — in Finland, Sweden, Australia, the US and Canada — it is standard practice to add nutritional supplements to bread, milk and orange juice to boost immune systems.

In Scotland, vitamin D supplements are about to be offered to everyone in vulnerable group categories. Researchers at London’s Queen Mary’s Hospital are now following 5,000 households through the winter to see if vitamin D supplements can boost resistance to Covid-19, or at least its severity. Other research has flagged up the importance of zinc and vitamin C to our immune systems.

I’m not citing this as an alternative or panacea, merely as an example of how the Johnson government is happy to throw vast amounts of money at the pharmaceutical industry (and to private PPE or “test and trace/trick or treat” contractors), but not into the nation’s nutritional health.

The government, and Public Health England, both know that over 50 per cent of the UK population is vitamin D deficient. Both recommend we take supplements over the winter months. But for over a decade, both have resisted statutory fortification of basic foods to make good these deficiencies. How quickly we forget our own past.

My post-war childhood was “blessed” by the public provision of orange juice, free school milk, rosehip syrup and (less ecstatically) cod liver oil. Prior to that, abjectly poor standards of nutritional health had forced the British government to mandate the inclusion of iron, calcium and B vitamins in what became known as “the national loaf.”

In Chinese medicine, trainee doctors are told at the start of their studies “food is our first medicine.” In food-poor and nutritionally deficient Britain, it is a lesson that party politics completely ignores, if only because the rich are largely unaffected.

Junketing and junk eating

When I first entered Parliament, my first lesson in food politics came from former MP Dennis Skinner. I didn’t understand the erratic basis on which some of Parliament’s division votes got called. Many of these seemed to be triggered by Skinner himself. When I asked for an explanation, Skinner told me to sit in the lower corridor from 6.30pm that evening and just watch.

I did as instructed, feeling like the factory apprentice who’d been sent to the stores to ask for a tin of striped paint or a long weight/wait. But sure enough, within 15 minutes the division bell rang and mayhem broke out on the lower corridor.

Inside the adjacent Members Dining Rooms, plates would clatter, cutlery collide, and (posh) members’ voices rise in anger. MPs emerged from their private dinners, furious about the disruption, when no vote had been expected. Most openly complained “I’ll bet it’s that bloody Skinner!”

I raced upstairs to the chamber, still no wiser about the vote, only for Skinner to say “Don’t worry, kid. Sit thy’sen down. Tha’ll see soon enough.” On cue, Conservative MPs, many in tuxedos, poured into the Chamber demanding to know what Skinner was playing at. Why had he so rudely interrupted their evening meals?

Skinner remained unfazed. “I ‘ope tha ain’t bolted thy food, lads,” he’d say. “For if ye’ do, ye could get an ulcer. An’ an ulcer could burst. Then ye’d ‘ave t’be rushed t’hospital. Ye might even die. An then we could have a by-election t’get rid of another of you bastards.”

Skinner wasn’t known for his subtleties, but he was clear about his politics. Disrupting the comfortable private dinners of Tory MPs was a minor reprisal against a lifetime of disrupted meal times amongst the poor. Their problem was not division bells but the absence of food on the table.

Little has changed. Johnson’s privately educated cabal live lives untouched by the poverty and insecurity they create among “the lower orders.” We’re lucky Marcus Rashford recalls so much of his own childhood hunger. We’re lucky he has a platform to challenge it. But we have to update our own understanding of the fundamental problems that now link food poverty, nutritional wellbeing and climate security.

A different hunger

It should be mandatory for all politicians (and the public) to begin by watching the documentary Kiss the Ground narrated by Woody Harrelson. In the most miserable of lockdown days, it lifts your spirits; making the connections between what we eat, how we farm, and the fastest, most effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The answer that ties all three together lies in the latest, un-patented, whiz-bang technology: soil.

Kiss the Ground throws its arms around the notion of “regenerative farming.” Not only is this the fastest way of taking carbon out of the atmosphere but it is what would reconnect us to nature; turning our backs on the agribusiness lobby; rejecting the chemical depletion of our soils, rivers and aquifers; and adopting no-till, sustainable farming practices.

It offers an approach to food security well understood by slow food movements in Europe and North America and by the Slow Towns who embrace its thinking. British farmers too are heading in this direction. But all throw their hands up in horror at a government that will not put nutritional and environmental standards in law within the current Agriculture Bill.

Farmers know that, without this, Britain will become the junk-food capital of the Western world; the dumping ground for the world’s worst, cheapest chlorinated chicken, growth hormone beef, and GMO foods that agro-chemical giants would dump on us.

Neoliberal ayatollahs in Johnson’s government would race Britain into corporate-compliant free-trade agreements that would destroy British farming, ignore climate disruption, accelerate ecosystem collapse and abandon nutritional wellbeing.

In feudal times, unprincipled owners of capital turned their backs on nutritional wellbeing by paying workers in flour adulterated with sawdust. Today’s corporate feudalism would do so through deregulated free-trade agreements that put crap on your plate and cash in their (offshore) accounts.

For a different food politics we need to feed the kids, restore our soils and reconnect with the circularity nature has always offered. If Rashford and Harrelson can run with this we’d better not be far behind.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992-2010.

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