The government must “sustain the impetus” to fight food poverty seen during the coronavirus pandemic and should consider putting a “right to food” in law, MPs have said.
Efforts to tackle hunger by expanding the free school meals programme and boosting support to food banks should continue beyond the pandemic, the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said.
In a report released on Wednesday, committee chair and Conservative MP Neil Parish called on the government to “set a precedent” for the future.
Up to 5.9 million adults and 1.7 million children experienced food poverty or insecurity in the six months to February, the report claims.
The cross-party group of MPs wants the government to build on actions taken during the COVID outbreak by enshrining the “right to food” in law and appointing a food security minister.
Mr Parish said: “During the COVID crisis, different government departments pulled together to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society were fed. This should set a precedent.
“We have a duty to ensure that access to enough nutritious food is a fundamental right for everyone in the UK, which is why our committee urges the government to appoint a new minister specifically to address food security.”
Last year, ministers were forced into U-turning on a decision not to run their school meals voucher scheme during the holidays after a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
There was further outrage over the size of food parcels sent to struggling families after several posted underwhelming pictures of them on social media.
Schools have had to hand out clothes and home furnishings – as well as food – to support pupils and their parents during the pandemic, according to the National Education Union (NEU).
Some children have arrived at school without winter coats or with holes in their shoes, a survey of 10,000 members claims.
One teacher who responded to the poll said: “I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the free school meals vouchers email hadn’t arrived.
“It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house.
“No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”
Union members say schools have been a “lifeline” for struggling families, but the government must play its part.
A government spokesman responded that “the pandemic has proven that the UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain that has coped well in responding to unprecedented challenges – and we will review the recommendations set out within this report and respond accordingly”.
He added: “Since March last year, we have spent more than £280bn to deliver an impressive package of economic and welfare support to protect and support the incomes and needs of families and children – and we continue to work closely with the food industry to ensure people across the country have the food and supplies they need.”