People having access to enough food strikes at the heart of what kind of society we want to be. Most people would agree it is shameful in 2019 that so many families across the UK are going hungry. In the 6th richest country in the world it is clear the issue is not the country’s wealth but the distribution of that wealth.

That’s why the Co-operative Party’s ‘Food Justice’ campaign is so important. Food is a basic human need and access to food should be enshrined as a basic human right.

Whilst we require national action to enshrine a right to food through redistributive means, Local Government can and should be the lightning rod to raise the issue up the political agenda, to demonstrate progressive action is achievable and can be effective.

Stretched family budgets
It is a sad fact that there are children in every community in the UK whose only nutritional meal each day is their free school lunch. Whilst for the majority of families weekends and school holidays are an opportunity to spend time and share experiences as a family, for those families facing food insecurity it is a period of stress with increased strains on already stretched family budgets and genuine worry about where their next meal is going to come from. That’s why, for several years now, North Ayrshire Council has operated a school holiday meal programme – easing the pressure on families and ensuring children can access a nutritional meal.

The early delivery of this scheme was exclusively through our school estate but my concern was always that this further stigmatises those children who benefit most from the scheme. It is like saying the ‘poor kids have to spend their holidays in school because their family can’t afford to feed them’. We have therefore started to shift the service into community facilities, working in partnership with third sector organisations who are already offering activities to local children through the holiday period but who can now provide a free meal as part of that programme courtesy of the Council. And the numbers benefitting from the holiday meal programme have rocketed as a result – last summer alone around 14,500 meals where served.

This is progressive action but what about weekends? What about the issue of food insecurity throughout the rest of the community?

In North Ayrshire we allocated funding to recruit a food development officer tasked with increasing dignified food provision across our communities. Part of that work has been establishing the North Ayrshire Food Forum, bringing together groups who offer some form of food provision across our area. The connections the forum creates will be used to seek new partnerships to increase access to food. In particular we are looking to develop partnerships that will allow us to extend the school holiday meal programme to include weekends – turning it into a 365 days a year scheme.

To support this we are making £20,000 of funding available to local groups to support projects that improve access to food via Participatory Budgeting – a process that enables local people to vote on what projects should receive funding.

People choosing to plant vegetables rather than flowers
Our Labour administration have taken the decision to devolve decision making over ground maintenance budgets to the community through our six locality partnerships (which are made up of local elected councillors and community representatives) and through that process local people have been voting to support alternative planting – choosing to plant vegetables rather than flowers in many beds across our communities. The food is then free for locals to pick and use.

In 2017 we created a Community Investment Fund, powered with £3million of funding, which has been devolved to the locality partnerships to invest in local priorities. Some of the fund is now being invested in food related projects for example £100,000 is being provided to the Three Towns Growers allotments group which will help support a half-a-million pound project to create a training centre – again increasing opportunities and education around food growing.

North Ayrshire Ventures Trust, which was established to assume surplus funds and the ownership of land and buildings from the wound down local urban regeneration company and thereafter disburse the income to local groups and projects, has recently approved £30,000 of funding for North Ayrshire Foodbank who will use it to fund a new dignified cooking project, adding to the support foodbanks traditionally give families by distributing emergency food parcels.

I believe these actions demonstrate the values of our Labour administration in North Ayrshire but there is still a bigger prize on the horizon.

The importance of Community Wealth Building
Through Community Wealth Building (often referred to as the Preston Model) we have an opportunity to bring these actions together under a new strategy that reconnects our economy with economic and social justice. Utilising the existing public resources within North Ayrshire and the wider Ayrshire region we can create an inclusive economy with the wellbeing of our citizens at its core. I believe there is, with Community Wealth Building, the potential to use co-operative models to transform the provision and availability of good quality, healthy, nutritious food that is available to all. That to me is the exciting game-changer we need.