When Marcus Rashford launched a petition to end child poverty, it topped a million signatures, bringing an issue championed by the co-op movement to the top of the country’s agenda.
After years of austerity and growing food bank queues, the Covid-19 pandemic plunged many more into financial hardship, closed schools and left millions of children hungry. Older people forced to shield faced desperate problems accessing food, while an unhealthy diet was linked with greater vulnerability to the disease.
But throughout the emergency, co-operators have been out there helping their communities.
The Co-op Group is one of the founding members of Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Task Force, a coalition of charities and food businesses lobbying for change, launched last September.
The Group’s campaigns manager, Paul Gerrard, formerly a civil servant in Whitehall, is one of those providing parliamentary advice to Mr Rashford and his team. The Group also provided the funding for Mr Rashford’s campaign website, endchildpoverty.org.uk
Mr Gerrard said: “What Marcus did was so important, he deserves 100% credit for pushing the government. He raised the issue of child poverty and the link between access to food and social mobility in a very visible way. He has created a national movement.”
Before the Rashford petition, the Group had already taken significant steps to ease the pain of the pandemic. Over £500,000 was raised through its Members Fund, more than 11,000 people helped via the community shopping scheme, 6,000 pupils were given topped up free school meal vouchers at a cost of £2.6m, and over £1.5m in products were given to the FareShare charity which distributes to food banks. There was also a cash uplift of Healthy Start vouchers, adding £1 to the £3.10 allocated by the government for milk, fruit and vegetables.
Mr Gerrard said: “The broader question now is when we get out of this emergency, what do you need to do so children have access to food, and how do you address issues of food injustice and poverty? There will be new partnerships announced at some point but broadly, they will be looking at access to food and solutions for communities to meet their own needs, going beyond food banks.
“In the long term, there needs to be statutory provision of funding, creating the right skills for children to eat good healthy food. The Group has played a leading role in campaigning, but the debate now needs to be about the sustainable structures needed to give children have access to food resources.”
The Group has over 20 Academy schools across the country; in some, most pupils rely on free school meals.
“There is a lot of evidence out there that going to school hungry lowers levels of attainment,” says Mr Gerrard. “What we need to do now is to develop financial support in terms of building up people’s confidence to use the resources they have to learn culinary and budgetary skills. It’s an issue for the whole country. The ability of many people to make good healthy food is too low and one of the roles co-ops can play is helping communities re-learn those skills.
“We are community retailers. We have a role to play in forging partnerships, listening to local communities and creating something at a local level that will meet the needs of the community.”
Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Co-op Party has also worked to alleviate food poverty – building on the work of its Food Justice campaign, launched in 2018.
Over the past few years, the Party has been working to persuade local authorities to adopt new food strategies and appoint local food champions. Last November, it launched its online Food Justice Tool so people could find out if their council was signed up to the strategies and, if not, to lobby for change. The Labour Party has joined its campaign for a ‘Right to Food’ and the Co-op Party is working with the Welsh government on food justice ‘milestones’.
Emma Hoddinott, the Party’s local government officer, said: “We’ve been proud to support the incredible work councils up and down the country have been doing. But now our mission is to help councillors embed that extraordinary effort so it can become the foundation for a more
The pandemic has brought food justice to the fore, with job losses and a five-week wait for Universal Credit.
“We saw people struggling to get access to food,” says Ms Hoddinott. “We heard stories about food boxes not turning up or being inadequate. The response was fantastic. Lots of councillors’ groups stepped forward.”
In her home patch of South Yorkshire, as a Labour/Co-op councillor, Ms Hoddinott helped set up the Rotherham Allotment Alliance. “The council still owns the land, but the day-to-day running is now in the hands of allotment holders. We want to bring in a lot more allotment sites with food champions and councillors providing local leadership. We will continue our campaigning about the Right to Food and that is the next stage, to see it enshrined in law.”
Nationwide, retail co-ops are drawing up plans on better access to food and ending food inequality. Sam Turner, community manager for Lincolnshire Co-op, said: “Over the last year, we have worked more closely with food banks and improved communications. We are doing some work on a growing/cooking and self-help agenda and are looking at developing a joint campaign with other co-op societies.
“In September we had a food bank summit with about 25 different food banks. One had the use of an allotment, and there was a willingness to work with allotment holders on growing food.
“We developed links with Southern Co-op and worked with them and other societies and encouraged members to donate their dividend in the run-up to Christmas.
“We also have a team of community coordinators who are location-based and work with food banks. We are looking at how we can work together on the growing and cooking agenda, and they’re very keen to pool our resources … People have become more aware of community engagement. And if you look at what our co-operative principles are, it is woven through the thread of our whole business.”