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Health Series: Research Spotlight

New cross-government committee needed to coordinate food policy during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Academics from the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London suggest formation of a new, cross-government committee on food decision making.

by Shamim Quadir (Senior Communications Officer)


Specialists at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, are calling for a cross-government committee to coordinate decision-making on food during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Released today, its Guidance Note Coordination must be key to how governments respond to COVID-19 food impacts: a view from England, is based on an in-depth exploration of how food policy is made in England.

The research shows that at least 16 government departments are responsible for different aspects of food from farm to fork in England, along with numerous public bodies. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have policy-making powers. This fragmentation leads to confusion and duplication.

The diverse nature of food issues means policy will inevitably be spilt between departments. Never in recent British history has it been more evident that these different parts of government need to coordinate, say the  authors of a report published today by the Food Research Collaboration, which is part of the Centre for Food Policy.

COVID-19 has had serious and far-reaching impacts on the UK’s food system, preventing some people from being able to obtain food, changing shopping habits, disrupting supply chains, causing labour shortages and leaving farmers with food they are unable to harvest or sell.

At local level, voluntary organisations and businesses have jumped into action to plug the gaps, doing an admirable of job of getting food to people who need it, and thereby keeping businesses trading and preventing waste. But these efforts are not coordinated.

Among other things, government coordination could ensure that:

  • Sufficient quantities of nutritious food are made available to consumers on a fair basis;

  • The many organisations currently coordinating efforts to match supply and demand at community level have the clarity and guidance they need;

  • The UK’s small-scale food businesses, and the infrastructure they depend on, survive into the future;

  • Government retains credibility as guardian of the nation’s nutritional health and wellbeing.

Lead author Dr Rosalind Sharpe said:

Food affects many policy sectors, from agriculture and business to trade and health. As a result, important decisions that affect what we eat and who gets to eat it are made in different parts of government, and they don’t always join up. This isn’t a new problem, but COVID-19 has really highlighted the lack of coordination, for example with food shortages and surpluses hitting at the same time, or schools closed without plans made to feed kids dependent on free school meals.

Co-author Dr Kelly Parsons said:

‘Food is the definitive cross-cutting issue, and coordinating bodies such as committees have been used before to connect food policy activities across government. Lessons from the past suggest that for a committee to succeed it would need senior backing, a wide remit and enough resources to do the job. It should liaise closely with the Devolved Administrations, and link to local-level government and local food organisations with expertise on the ground. And it should include expertise from different departments within government, and bring in people from small as well as big food businesses.’

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director of the Centre for Food Policy, said:

The current situation is unprecedented, and it would have been unfair to expect the government to be perfectly prepare, but some coordination at this stage is badly needed. And it also is vital for the longer-term. A cross-government committee on the food system would be one step towards facilitating the transition to a more resilient, fairer, and healthier food system, which contributes to the economic recovery.’

Find out more

Download the Guidance Note: Coordination must be key to how governments respond to Covid-19 food impacts: a view from England, by Rosalind Sharpe, Kelly Parsons and Corinna Hawkes.

The Guidance Note is based on the report, also published today, Who makes food policy in England? Government actors and activities, by Kelly Parsons.

The Centre for Food Policy is an interdisciplinary research and teaching centre dedicated to improving food policy worldwide: 

The Food Research Collaboration is an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. Launched in 2014, it brings together academics and civil society organisations to share evidence-based knowledge to improve UK food policy. It is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

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