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Opinion: The last year should teach us that food security is not guaranteed

Food activist Sophie Healy-Thow reflects on how the pandemic impacted Ireland’s sense of food security.

Sophie Healy-Thow

EMPTY SUPERMARKET SHELVES terrified many of us in March of last year. There were no actual food shortages, of course, in our food-rich nation, but there were some bare aisles and there was bulk buying and this led to shops limiting how many of each item we could buy.

Flour and yeast were among the hard-to-gets, along with some imported foods. Very long queues formed outside supermarkets and once inside, there were new strict hygiene rules.

Food was suddenly a little harder to get. This moment was probably the closest most of us will ever come to experiencing any sort of food insecurity, which is the term used for people who do not have reliable and regular access to affordable and nutritious food for their normal energy needs.

We got a shock at that point but that is nothing compared to the stark reality lived by one-in-10 people in the world today (750 million people in 2019, according to UN estimates) who are affected by severe food insecurity and who struggle to eat even one meal a day.

For those impoverished people, all of the shelves are empty all of the time. It is as if they are on another planet because their reality is literally like a world away from ours.

  • The Noteworthy team want to examine if the State is doing enough to tackle food poverty in Ireland. Support this project here.

Effects of food insecurity

Children suffer the most. Figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) from last year tell us that 47 million children under the age of five (over nine times the population of Ireland) are wasted, which means they are emaciated or dangerously too thin for their height.

This is potentially fatal and the WHO says that 45 per cent of deaths among children under-five are linked to undernutrition. In fact, it is estimated that 3.1 million children die from malnutrition every year, mostly in the world’s poorest countries.

A sobering 144 million children are also stunted, which means they are too short for their height and this leaves them with life-long problems if they survive. The point here is that we are lucky and, in many ways, privileged to live in a wealthy society with easy access to good food.

It is over 175 years since Ireland experienced serious famine and hopefully, we never do again, but what this pandemic has taught us is that our food security is not an absolutely solid guarantee. Events can change everything.

We need to realise that political decisions are key to solving the local and global problems of food inequality. They impact what we eat, how accessible it is and how much it costs.

Just look at Brexit and how it has slowed some imports into this island. It has even created difficulties for farmers and domestic gardeners by stopping the importation of British potato seeds due to a technical difference in regulation.

My own interest in nutrition and campaigning for better food equality began when I was 15 when I and two school friends at Kinsale Community College won the BT Young Scientist award.

We won it with a project that examined how natural bacteria could be used to significantly increase crop output. That led us on to win the Google Science Fair in San Francisco. From there I was sucked into a world of educating myself about food policy, politics, distribution, nutrition and how young people can be the driving forces of change in this area.

I decided to pursue my passion at University College Cork, where I am now in my final year studying International Development and Food Policy. I got involved with various charity campaigns and spoke on these topics at UN conferences.

Ireland’s role

Ireland has a really good policy for helping those suffering from hunger in poorer countries and our government’s development aid agency, Irish Aid does a great job helping communities produce their own food to help themselves out of extreme poverty. However, at a national level, we should be doing better.

Our own food system is not perfect and it needs to be modernised with a view to making nutritious food more affordable and accessible to everyone and not just to those who have a decent income.

We also need to get much better at educating children about food, where it comes from, the impact on climate and making it a much more important part of school life.

There should be canteens providing delicious and nutritious meals in all schools to all children, no matter what area they are from or what income their parents have. This would make an enormously positive change in Ireland and the overall health of the nation. It could also inspire other countries to do the same.

Home economics as a subject also needs to be modernised and taught to all sexes as a primary subject, which would also help solve the ongoing gender inequality that remains in society. I really think it needs a new name too.

We have (according to Social Justice Ireland in 2019) 760,000 people living below the poverty line – which is 15.7 per cent of the population. That has an impact on what these people eat and how often, and it can lead to ill-health if they are not getting enough nutrients.

Everyday issues

Obesity (a form of overnutrition) is another major problem in this country that needs to be addressed. At my own university, UCC, many students have also been struggling with rising rents and other costs over the last few years.

Some have needed food aid from “food banks” so that they could stay healthy in the second biggest city of one of Europe’s wealthiest countries. Think about that.

Reducing or cutting taxes on food that is grown or produced locally, should be considered – along with incentives for new food start-ups. This would help reduce the high cost of many healthy foods. We as consumers can do a huge amount too by buying local when we can, which isn’t always easy with so much food imported.

Buying locally grown food also reduces the impact food has on our climate. We must support our own farmers and fishermen and women. Their success benefits us, literally improves our health, and also creates a safety net should the global food system ever get another shock from something like a pandemic.

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Buying ethically sourced foods, such as Fairtrade coffee and bananas, is also hugely important as we try to also make sure farmers in poorer countries get a fair wage for their work that ultimately gets consumed by us.

I am inspired by so many other young people trying to make a positive change, but also by our older generation. My own grandmother Ellen Healy from Heir Island off the Cork coast was one of my guests in the Midday Snackbox podcast I presented for Concern Worldwide and in it, she describes how as a young girl they had no electricity and lived off the food they grew on the island.
Food insecurity and inequality is one of the many injustices and inequalities in the 21st century that I, and I believe my entire generation of under 25s (who make up 41 per cent of the world’s population), need to eliminate.

Young people are taking action, especially on issues like climate change, but we’re not seeing the same commitments to change from governments and big business. We need those in authority to bring about the positive changes that are needed.

Last year’s empty food shelves proved that we are all part of a global and fragile food system and we can all make a difference to make it more secure.

Sophie Healy-Thow is studying International Development and Food Policy at UCC. She was just 15 when she and two other students from Kinsale Community College won the BT Young Scientist competition with a project that examined how a natural bacteria could be used to significantly increase crop output. She presents The Midday Snackbox podcast.

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Sophie Healy-Thow

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