UNIVERSAL FOOD COVERAGE, a game-changing idea? 

A grand narrative to steer game-changing options to transform the global food system to feed people within planetary boundaries

Photo: Archivo de Proyectos, Flickr

The 2019 United Nations General Assembly had for the first time a dedicated focus on universal health coverage (UHC). This General Assembly reaffirmed that “health is a precondition for and an outcome and indicator of all three dimensions of sustainable development” and strongly committed to “achieve universal health coverage by 2030, with a view to scaling up the global effort to build a healthier world for all”.[1] The call for achieving universal health coverage was also enunciated in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3): all countries of the world should make efforts to ensure that everyone has access to a minimum set of high-quality healthcare interventions without facing financial hardship. Optimal health is a human right and a public good, and not the privilege of only those who can afford to pay. Why this very same rationality is not applied to food? Why is food, another essential human right associated to the Right to Life, left to the “invisible hand” of the market? Why is purchasing power (and affordability) the default mechanism to allocate such an essential resource?    

The UN declaration on UHC highlights the fundamental role of healthy diets and healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems – along with education, gender equality and women’s empowerment, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and social protection mechanisms – in building healthier societies.

Inasmuch as the UN-sponsored commitment towards “Universal Health Coverage” is a unique opportunity to address malnutrition in all its forms[2] and the World Bank-UNESCO “Education for All” initiative aims to ensure that all children have access to free and compulsory primary education of good quality[3], the Universal Food Coverage (UFC) could provide an all-embracing entitlement-based narrative to frame ongoing and new activities under a different storytelling, more inspirational and aspirational for the participants in the FSS. This approach would also surpass the humanitarian approach usually undertaken in fragile settings, thus paving the way for a Humanitarian-Development Peace Nexus (HDPN) approach.     

Inspired by Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and Education for All. The UHC is already a reality (implemented through multiple institutional arrangements) in Europe, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and many other countries such as Cuba, Russia, China, etc. Moreover, the Universal Education Schemes, whereby any children in school age has a place guaranteed in a school (either public or private), are also prevalent all over. Both “grand political initiatives” are anchored in the consideration of health and education as pivotal to human development (even survival in the case of health), as well as fundamental human rights and public goods. And yet, enacting health and education as public goods does not grant immediate success or smooth applicability. Despite the global agreement to support UHC and Universal Education, there are still many gaps and problems. But at least everybody understands the rationale and morality behind that.     

Actually, a similar idea was already launched by Dr Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director-General, World Health Organization, in the introductory text of the Global Nutrition Report 2017: “ As the GNR demonstrates, universal healthy nutrition is inextricably linked to all of the SDGs, and serves as a foundation for Universal Health Coverage, WHO’s top priority”. Although he referred to universal nutrition, the underlying idea remains unchanged: food and good nutrition, as essential for human life regardless sex, age, culture or place-based considerations, shall be guaranteed to every human being.

This idea is new compared to what we have now, and thus it can be a real game changer in the way food security and food systems are approached, thus positioning the United Nations system as an innovative shaper of “Grand Narratives of Transformation” (anchored in universal human rights) and not just efficient providers of humanitarian and development assistance. At present, the dominant narrative about food systems and hunger eradication is articulated around “affordability” and “access” (understood as physical access). Affordability means that food, as a commodity, shall be affordable, because only through market mechanisms is food allocated. And to be affordable, (a) either you increase people’s purchasing power (what has proven to be difficult, and it can be counterbalanced by incomes and prices rising in parallel thus keeping purchasing power equal), or (b) you cheapen food prices, with all the social and environmental consequences we already know: low farm gates prices, enslaved temporary workers, non-accountable environmental damages, forest clearances, wasted food because it doesn’t fit cosmetic requirements, and huge subsidies to food corporations to maintain. When we refer to health and education in public policies we do not use the term “affordability” because we all work under the value-based narrative of education and health as public goods, human rights and people’s entitlements.

This idea may also be considered as a disruptive shift, moving the core debate away from “affordability” to “entitlements” (see text below by Amartya Sen), providing a narrative that could be understood by everybody (from an illiterate pastoralist to a prime minister): as a work in progress, the UN system could work towards a “Universal Food Coverage” whereby everybody would be entitled to get a minimum access to adequate food every day, regardless his/her purchasing power and guaranteed through different public, private and collective means. This idea could include work to be undertaken by other UN agencies, INGOS, bilateral agencies and private sector entities.

Moreover, this frame could accommodate several products and evidence-based practices proposed in the five Food System Summit Action Tracks and expand/scale up the coverage of ongoing activities (i.e. home-grown school meals, food-based and cash-based safety nets, assets creation programmes to be reframed as Employment Generation Schemes that are undertaken at massive scale to increase landscape, community, household and individual resilience), thus enabling several agencies to become relevant actors in policy advocacy within country capacity strengthening schemes.


1.- Universal Safety Nets (either cash-, voucher-or food-based), based not only on humanitarian needs but on entitlements as well (since food is a natural resource every human needs to stay alive). The cash-based safety nets would enable beneficiaries to source appropriate, diverse foods (or any other basic need) themselves from local markets. Conditional and Unconditional Cash Transfers

2.- Employment Generation Schemes (food- or cash-for-work schemes could be reframed from emergency assistance to employment generation schemes): we contribute to generate more employment for poor, food insecure. un-skilled people, either temporary or stable, with specific goals related circular economy, green economy, climate shocks resilience or infrastructure development (to reach last miles where the State cannot reach).

3.- Healthy and nutrient-rich diets could become accessible to all (not just through purchasing power), guaranteed by state mechanisms, with a (regulated and growing) private sector that is geared towards that goal. So far, most efforts in fragile states have been geared to increase the supply of calories. However, diets based primarily on staple cereals or tubers lack diversity, which contributes to micronutrient deficiencies. Thus, much greater effort on enabling access to Healthy diets is required. Moreover, cooperatives, customary indigenous systems and contemporary alternative food networks (i.e. community supported agriculture) would also be a fundamental part of this scheme. So, in a gradual approach, firstly everybody should be guaranteed access to an energy-sufficient diet, and as a second step, access to a dietary-adequate diet. So, the “Fill the Nutrient Gap” initiative would be extremely relevant here.

4.- Home-grown School Feeding would be transformed into a universal programme, as an additional entitlement every child has by attending school. If “eating” is as equally important as “learning”, both should be provided to all students in all schools. So, that would mean transforming school meal programmes based on voluntary humanitarian or developmental aid into universal school meal schemes to be supported by public budgets (with external support from donors/UN agencies).

5.- Shock-responsive Social Protection (Forecast-based Early Action, Weather-related Insurance Schemes, Risk Sharing Initiatives)

6.- Nomadic Livestock Economies (for self-consumption and trade) that inhabit remote, sparsely populated fringe areas, usually moving in cross-border itineraries. 

7.- Scaling up local food procurement to benefit smallholder farmers: Smallholders feed the world. Institutional demand for food and food system services can be a direct and indirect driving force towards building sustainable and inclusive food systems, contributing to inclusive agricultural growth and sustainable social and economic transformation. Local procurement, including pro-smallholder procurement, can significantly strengthen smallholders’ livelihoods and the sustainability of food systems, particularly when it is associated with activities that support value chain actors. It also improves the availability, quality and safety of food for the community.

8.- Food reserves: Support national governments with the management of reserves and monitor countries’ food reserves as an indicator of an upcoming food crisis.

9.- Food Banks to be part of the UFC as state-run institutions, based on entitlements, that could be complemented by not-for-profit private institutions such as charities, religious institutions or philanthropic foundations.

Obviously, the Universal Food Coverage cannot be reached in the short term, but at least we can set a fair goal that would be new, game-changing, understandable, all-embracing, rights-based and doable (because the world has managed to do it for other human needs such as health or education). Food is a vital need for every human, every day. Affordability to such a natural resource cannot be solely dependent on anyone’s purchasing power.

Prof. Amartya Sen was already proposing this idea in 2013 in India, with no avail as we can see. https://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/amartya-sen-bats-universal-food-coverage

Perhaps, it may be now the right time. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has arrived. And we could invite Prof. Amartya Sen to present the idea within the FSS.   

[1] United Nations, 2019. Political declaration of the high-level meeting on universal health coverage, ‘Universal health coverage: moving together to build a healthier world’.

[2] GNR (2020). 2020 Global Nutrition Report: Action on equity to end malnutrition. Bristol, UK: Development Initiatives

[3] https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/brief/education-for-all#:~:text=Education%20for%20All%20%28EFA%29%20is%20an%20international%20initiative,of%20education%20to%20%E2%80%9Cevery%20citizen%20in%20every%20society.%E2%80%9D