Europe's unique trials in food 'social security'

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The rising cost of living has put pressure on low-income families seeking to buy healthy, nutritious food (Credit: Getty Images)
As food prices rise around the world and access to healthy nutrition falls, trials in France and Belgium are experimenting with a unique "social security" for food.

On a crisp winter morning in Schaerbeek, a vibrant neighbourhood in north-east Brussels, Marie-Christine Hache walks the aisles of BEES Coop supermarket filling her cart with organic fruit, vegetables, nuts, rice, pulses and pasta.

For Hache, the burden of grocery shopping amidst record-high prices has been eased through her participation in one of two novel initiatives trialling "social security for food".

The affordability of food is a growing concern for increasing numbers of households worldwide as people struggle to cope with the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation. With some forced to cut back on food to meet other essential expenses, food insecurity is on the rise around the world.

The idea of social security for food might sound far-fetched. But through recently launched projects in Montpellier in France and Brussels in Belgium, burgeoning collectives of NGOs, farmers, researchers and citizens are experimenting with the idea that quality, nutritious and organic food should be accessible to everyone – regardless of income.

"Eating healthy and having access to quality food is expensive and only a minority of the population can afford to do so," says Margherita Via, project manager at BEES Coop.

Inspired by universal healthcare systems such as those in France and Belgium, civil society groups have proposed establishing a new branch of social security, under which each citizen would receive a monthly allowance enabling them to buy food meeting certain environmental and ethical criteria.

Food banks provide urgent provisions in times of crisis, but researchers argue that they are not a long-term solution to unaffordable nutritious food (Credit: Getty Images)

Food banks provide urgent provisions in times of crisis, but researchers argue that they are not a long-term solution to unaffordable nutritious food (Credit: Getty Images)

At its heart, the idea is about moving away from food as a commodity. "A total overhaul of [the agro-industrial food] system based on the right to food is necessary," says agronomist Mathieu Dalmais, who has led the movement since its inception in 2017 through his work with ISF-AgriSTA, one of 11 organisations working on the idea in France.

As the costs of the modern, globalised industrial food system – biodiversity loss, labour exploitation, food waste, disease – have come into sharper focus in recent years, calls to transform it have intensified. Effectively addressing these issues requires a systemic approach, which is where social security for food comes in, explains Jonathan Peuch, advocacy officer on the right to food and nutrition at Fian Belgium.

Under the proposed scheme for France and Belgium, each person (or parents for minors) would automatically receive a fixed sum every month through, for example, a designated card. Between €100-150 ($106-159/£88-133) monthly has been proposed for adults, and between €50-75 ($53-80/£44-67) for children.

Like healthcare, the system would be financed through contributions from each citizen proportional to their income. In Belgium, Fian has proposed people earning €3,000 ($3,190/£2,650) gross monthly would contribute €150 ($159/£133) every month, those earning more would contribute more and those earning less would contribute less. Yet all would receive €150 monthly – in effect, helping redistribute wealth from those with the most means to those with the least.

Further funding could be raised through a state contribution, for example from taxes on profits of multinational food companies or through increasing excise duties on nutritionally unhealthy products, such as alcohol or tobacco.

"Politically, some people say [the idea] is utopic," says Peuch. "I don't think it's utopic, it's just a choice for society to say we're going to increase our contribution, and we want to put that money here."

Only food products meeting certain criteria – such as organic certification, fair pay for farmers and workers, and short supply chains – would be able to be purchased with the allowance, which could be used wherever those products are sold. These criteria are intended to support a wider transformation of the food system to one that is more just and sustainable.

Although organic foods are not healthier in terms of nutrients, studies show they expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic farming has less environmental impacts than conventional farming and can enhance biodiversity – increasing species richness by 30% and the number of organisms by 50%, according to meta-analyses comparing the two.

With the rising cost of living, many people are having to make changes to the food they buy (Credit: Getty Images)

With the rising cost of living, many people are having to make changes to the food they buy (Credit: Getty Images)

France and Belgium's trials, which began earlier this year and last year respectively, will each run for 12 months, and the early results appear to be positive.

In the Brussels trial, funded by the country's social welfare centre, participants from nearly 60 low-income households receive €150 monthly for one year – without having to make a contribution – to spend in one supermarket: BEES Coop. Via says so far participants are mainly purchasing dietary staples, with a small fraction allocated towards non-food items such as soap and toilet paper. Hache credits the intervention with improving her diet and easing her stress levels. "I can buy organic fruit and vegetables and bulk products in the quantities I want," she says.

The project in Montpellier, supplemented by public and private grants, gets closer to the goal of wealthier participants contributing more for their food. For one year, each of the 400 participants, half of whom live in poverty, are required to contribute a voluntary amount between €1-150 ($1.1-159/£0.9-£133) monthly, and will receive €100 ($108/£90) monthly, regardless of what they contributed. To prevent the allowance from being misused, the citizens' committee behind the project issue the funds in a local currency that can be spent at five supermarkets across the city.

Emma Patterson, senior lecturer in public health nutrition at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, says the intervention is an excellent way of addressing structural barriers like cost and accessibility. "There's good evidence to suggest working in a structural way is more effective than just providing information to people," she says.

However, Patterson cautions that by restricting the funds to be spent only in certain shops, access may remain a barrier. "To have a wide impact, you need to involve ordinary supermarkets and make this available to everybody. Otherwise, you'd be benefiting people already in a position to make extra trips to special shops. You'd miss reaching out to the wider segment of the population that needs to be helped," she says.

Enough food is produced to feed 10 billion people, yet much of the world's population is inadequately nourished and, globally, hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition are on the rise. Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which sent global food prices skyrocketing, 3.1 billion people already could not afford a healthy diet.

From the UK to Spain to Germany to Latvia, food bank demand is soaring across Europe. It's a similar story across the Americas. Food banks in Canada have reported record-breaking visits to food banks, in Argentina food banks are unable to meet demand and in the US food bank use is up one-third compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Peuch says having to ask for food isn't a dignified approach and that food aid, while serving a role in extreme situations, cannot be a long-term response to food insecurity. "Sometimes the state says to us, 'we have no food problem in our country because we have food aid.' But for us, food aid is not the right to food," he says. "It only provides limited quantity, and [when it comes to] quality, people cannot really choose."

Patterson agrees it's important for people to have the freedom to choose their own food and for interventions to be designed and developed with dignity in mind.

With food insecurity a growing concern throughout Europe, campaigners think a window of opportunity to usher in changes may be opening. "When you have to eat food that you don't want to buy, but you have to buy it because you don't have a choice… this makes people aware," says Peuch.

Studies show lower household income is consistently associated with poorer diet quality, as low-cost diets rely on energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. In Scotland, GPs have reported rising cases of malnutrition due to overreliance on such foods since the onset of the cost-of-living crisis. Poor nutrition is linked to the worldwide rise of micronutrient deficiencies, obesity and preventable diseases like heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Food insecurity is especially detrimental to the health, development and wellbeing of children, whose nutritional requirements are high during a time of rapid physical growth. Globally, childhood malnutrition is considered one of the largest public health challenges.

The strain of poor nutrition on healthcare systems is significant. A study in Belgium, for example, found healthcare costs and lost productivity costs due to excess weight totalled €4.5bn ($4.8bn/£4bn) per year between 2013 and 2017.

When food prices rise, rates of malnutrition have been seen to increase among the most food-insecure communities (Credit: Getty Images)

When food prices rise, rates of malnutrition have been seen to increase among the most food-insecure communities (Credit: Getty Images)

An analysis by Jean-François Neven, an attorney of labour and social law, found establishing social security for food in Belgium is legally and institutionally possible. But making it a reality requires overcoming an obstacle which might prove even more difficult: changing the way we think.

Despite Belgium and France being wealthier today than when they established their social security systems, Peuch says it's difficult for many people to think beyond their own interests and see social security as something positive from which we all win.

Dalmais says capitalism makes this change in mindset difficult, and underappreciation of the flaws in our food system is also hindering change. The complexity of social security for food often frightens people, he says, who "prefer solutions that are simpler to implement, but naive and incapable of changing everything". Change has been slow at the political level, he says, though reception among citizens of the trials has been positive.

France and Belgium's ongoing trials may only make small headway on these very large challenges. But they could at least help researchers answer basic questions about the feasibility of such a scheme on a broader scale, such as whether the monthly stipend is sufficient, if participants are satisfied, and what people choose to buy with the money (in these trials, participants are free to select whichever foods they prefer).

Beyond these two trials, momentum in Europe is gathering. Two similar trials in Toulouse and Bordeaux in France are in the works, expected to launch within the next two years. Peuch anticipates the concept will continue to gain traction in Belgium, where already 67 organisations are part of the collective pushing social security for food forward.

"[People] will say it's not possible, you're just dreaming," says Peuch. "But when you see the coalition behind it, really supporting the idea, it's making it more concrete and realistic."


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