Older age and the human right to food: an opportunity for Scotland.

Today is World Food Day which is an international day celebrated every year worldwide on 16 October to commemorate the date of the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. The day is celebrated widely by many other organisations concerned with hunger and food security, including the World Food Programme who received the Nobel Prize in Peace for 2020 for their efforts to ‘combat hunger, contribute to peace in conflict areas, and for playing a leading role in stopping the use of hunger in the form of a weapon for war and conflict.’

But what does World Food Day mean for Scotland? For me part of the answer to that wide question is the fact that we have also two days left of  UK Malnutrition Awareness Week.  Scotland has many great campaigning organisations dedicated to progressing issues of equality and justice in relation to food. None more so than Eat Well Age Well who this past week have been leading a social and wider media campaign to raise the profile of issues of malnutrition and food poverty as they affect older people in our society.

On Monday I read of the excellent new project being run by Scottish Borders Council, NHS Borders and Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well project, alongside care organisations and and housing bodies. It is designed to increase conversations about nutrition and weight loss in order to identify need amongst the area’s older population with the aim of securing earlier intervention for those aged 65 and over who live in their own homes and are at risk of becoming malnourished.

Eat Well Age Well argue that whilst 1 in 10 older people in Scotland today are at risk of, or living with malnutrition, they believe that this may be an underestimate, with between 20% and 30% of older people living in Scotland suffering or at risk of malnourishment. Those of us who work in social care will also be very aware – especially in the community – of the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on increasing food-illness and malnutrition amongst the isolated and lonely old. I continually am being told stories from the frontline of older folks who are making hard decisions to limit their diet and food consumption in order to heat and fuel their homes.

Quoted in The National, Laura Cairns, Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well project manager, said:

“We have long said that malnutrition among older people is under-recognised and under-reported… Increased screening action and early identification of malnutrition in the Scottish Borders will help address that and create an example that we hope can be rolled out across Scotland.”

Great news for the Borders but sadly illustrative of the shocking increase in malnutrition amongst our older age population. The challenge is expressed plainly by UK Malnutrition Awareness Week who stated:

‘As the winter approaches, we must take action to raise awareness of preventable malnutrition. We also need to alert communities that many older people may find themselves more vulnerable than ever before.

Many older people have become less physically mobile, have experienced loss, bereavement sadness and loneliness. Many lack confidence, are reluctant to go out and have worries about their mental health and general well-being.

Health and social care services, voluntary sector and community food providers are stretched and struggling to keep up. There are already concerns over the difficulties that older people may experience in buying, preparing, cooking, and eating food. Many may not be getting the help to eat and drink when they need it.’

The World Food Day theme for this year, 2021, is “Safe food now for a healthy tomorrow”. Never were words more apposite as we in Scotland prepare for the arrival of thousands at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow. The relationship between environmental sustainability and responsibility alongside ethical and safe food production should be intimate and inextricable.  The way we grow and produce our food, the food which we choose and the way we consume it affect our health and that of our planet.

For some time now a host of organisations under the excellent, able and creative leadership of Nourish Scotland have been in coalition, campaigning to improve our nation’s response to food.  Nourish Scotland have made five asks, including the creation of a Good Food Nation Bill, the incorporation of the human right to food directly into Scottish law, the establishment of an Independent Food Commission and the development of cross-cutting National and local Food Plans critical to embedding the right to food in a holistic, whole-system manner.

Just over a week ago the Scottish Government published its Draft Good Food Nation Bill. To say that I and others were disappointed is to put it mildly. This is a real missed opportunity, not just because the eyes of the environmental world are on our actions in the weeks ahead, but because there is the potential for a more robust and ambitious piece of legislation which could make real and meaningful difference to the citizens of Scotland not least those who are older and those today suffering from food poverty and malnutrition. What we have, I fear in this draft Bill, is a moving of the plates around the table, rather than bringing us a rights-based innovative new meal! I hope all concerned about issues of poverty and food, malnutrition and diet, social care and health, will take the opportunity to respond to the Bill and communicate their concerns and aspirations.

Food and the right to food is an inalienable human rights issue and so should be central to the development of a new Scottish Human Rights Act. It should not be peripheral to a new Good Food Nation Act in any form and there should be clear and explicit obligations upon both national and local governments, and upon organisations delivering public services, to ensure that the right to food is upheld. This means not simply giving a nod – a ‘regard’ to the right to food but to ensure that public bodies are required to ‘act in accordance’ to the human right to food.

In my own sector that not only means duties upon those who commission care and support for those in the community, but it also means an adequate allocation of resource and finance to enable real nutritional and health-beneficial sustainable and environmental food is allocated to those cared for and supported in care home and hospital alike. For too long many of us have felt that what we spend on the food and nutrition of those who are supported by the State is woefully inadequate especially for an older population. A human right to food would also serve to prevent folks failing to be properly nourished in their own homes, having to make cruel decisions between being warm and being hungry, and to ensure that as we age food is there in sufficient plentifulness to enable us to thrive and flourish until the end of our days rather than to wither in the body through hunger and thirst. The essence of a hospitable nation is the extent to which it afford fulness to those who sit around its table, whether neighbour or stranger, none should go hungry.

We have it within our ability and grasp to change the way we relate to food, for all ages not just the old, to call out the silence of hunger from the shadows into a light of shared commitment to both the planet and humanity which will banish hunger from fearful lives and communities. I leave you with the words of the English 20th Century poet Robert Laurence Binyon:


I come among the peoples like a shadow.

I sit down by each man’s side.

None sees me, but they look on one another,

And know that I am there.

My silence is like the silence of the tide

That buries the playground of children;

Like the deepening of frost in the slow night,

When birds are dead in the morning.

Armies trample, invade, destroy,

With guns roaring from earth and air.

I am more terrible than armies,

I am more feared than the cannon.

Kings and chancellors give commands;

I give no command to any;

But I am listened to more than kings

And more than passionate orators.

I unswear words, and undo deeds.

Naked things know me.

I am first and last to be felt of the living.

I am Hunger


Donald Macaskill