Men carrying white plastic bags of food from a pile of bags

COVID sparks a new 'right to food' movement across the globe

The pandemic has contributed to a doubling in food insecurity around the world.

The World

Food kits containing essential grocery items being provided by a local self-governing body is unloaded from a truck in Kochi, Kerala state, India, May 25, 2021.

R S Iyer/AP

Hunger has been on the rise worldwide for years before COVID-19. The United Nations has found that the pandemic made the situation drastically worse — fast.

From the US to the UK, to India, workers living from paycheck to paycheck were suddenly cut off from their jobs and dependent on government aid for food. And in many cases, governments failed to deliver. 

“First, the government effort was delayed, in the sense that the lockdown came before the relief came,” said Dipa Sinha, an economist in New Delhi. “It came after a week or so, and then it was really small compared to the scale of the problem.”

She said people stood for hours in lines to receive one meal. That was a scene repeated across the world, including in wealthy nations, despite the fact that the right to food is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Related: Brazil’s small farmers tackle food insecurity, hunger amid the pandemic 

"This is an ongoing crisis — it’s not over.”

Megan Carney, director, Center for Regional Food Studies, University of Arizona

“By and large, that is absolutely a state failure that millions of people were subjected to those circumstances,” said Megan Carney, director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. “And they still are. This is an ongoing crisis — it’s not over.”

Few countries recognize the right to food in practice, but the epidemic of hunger caused by the pandemic has a movement gaining momentum.

In the UK, soccer fans have pushed city councils in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Newcastle to formally call for the right to food to be a legal requirement. The UK Parliament is considering it. And in the US, last month, West Virginia legislators proposed a right to food amendment. Maine representatives voted to add the right to food to the state constitution.

If advocates in the UK and US succeed in their efforts, people experiencing hunger will be empowered to do something about their situation, said Julie Smit, Europe coordinator for the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty, a worldwide network of grassroots food producers.

Related: China's 'Operation Empty Plate' targets food waste

“People will therefore have an official right to food, so that you could actually take the authorities to court. You could take legal action to insist on having access to food,” she said. “I think this is probably what will hopefully help in the future should — heaven forbid — we have another pandemic.”

Still, winning the right to food by law may just be the first step down a long road, said Michael Fakhri, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food

“The history of any political struggle shows getting something in law doesn't mean you're done,” he said. “It means that the struggle continues. And for me, that's the sign of success.”

And that’s what’s happening in India. It has the right to food by law, established by a Supreme Court ruling in 2001. Ever since then, activists like Dipa Sinha have been fighting at the state and local levels to get that right recognized in practice.

And COVID-19 just meant fighting harder. 

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“Many of the gains that we made over the last 15 years, we feel we are probably going back on.”

Dipa Sinha, New Delhi economist

“Many of the gains that we made over the last 15 years, we feel we are probably going back on,” Sinha said. 

It’s only gotten worse over the last several months as the crisis has deepened across India. 

“So once again, we are facing this problem where people don't have jobs here, don't have their full income and wages and are not able to buy food,” Sinha said.

“On top of that, this time, the health expenses are much higher. And the government relief has been less generous this time.”

Related: How Biden's COVID-19 relief plans could help fight hunger

Members of the India Right to Food campaign went back to court to force the government to do better. And last week the Indian Supreme Court ruled again that states must provide migrant workers with food. Sinha said she and other activists are now focused on making sure that the order is followed.