The following is the text for my talk opening the panel discussion at the Decent Helpings event held on 7 November 2014.
Thank you all for coming today.
My aim, with this short introduction, is to begin to frame the issue of food justice—or perhaps more aptly food injustice—
I want to argue that the local knowledge that is available in this room and the questions we are going to ask later in the workshop part of this event are as vitally important to understanding and addressing food security as the large scale/global interventions and investigations that currently dominate the research and policy landscape.
One of my colleagues talks about the perfect storm of food insecurity. He argues that the current rates of environmental degradation combined with global population growth means that world wide we are facing a food crisis, which needs to be addressed. Indeed this idea has been put forward as one of the grand societal challenges and is embedded in the UN’s Millennium development goals.
While this may be the case, I would argue that even with the interventions that research into global food security can produce, that unless we address the issues of food injustice at the same time there will still be people who are unable to claim their right to food.
We are not yet at the point of global food insecurity, yet there is hunger in countries that are considered food secure, as you are all aware. The UK is now set to be the fastest growing economy in Europe (according to EU projections) with the greatest number of millionaires, yet recent research also reveals that it is also the most divided in terms of income equality. Moreover, this division is not spread equally across the UK. While Inner London has more billionaires than any other city in the world, South Yorkshire, as well as East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire are among the top poorest regions in Northern Europe (see this inequality briefing report).
Alongside this poverty is food insecurity. In 2009 the world summit on food security defined food insecurity as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.
Graham Riches, a food scholar, argues that Food banks, soup kitchens and breadlines are not socially accepted ways to acquire food for oneself or for ones family, nor is begging, shoplifting or fishing food out of a skip—what north Americans refer to as dumpster diving (see Riches and Silvasti, 2014, First World Hunger Revisited).
Riches goes on to point out that food acquired through food banks and other forms of charity are a gift. As such, food acquired this way is inherently insecure rather than supplied as part of our right to food. The Right to Food – asserts that people should be able to afford food without having to compromise other basic needs and is codified in international law.
I would argue that it is more than affordability, it is the condition of not always knowing how to provide a sufficient, nourishing and culturally acceptable meal for an active and healthy life is also socially unacceptable and contravenes this basic human right. Moreover, this condition of insecurity is manifest for people through different channels. It is now cheaper, for instance to feed your family on processed food, with its higher sugar, salt and fat content, than fresh food (PLOSONE) . At the same time research cited by the National Association for Care Catering estimates that one in 10 elderly in the UK are at risk of malnutrition. While we don’t have clear numbers of children’s food poverty some research indicates that in poor areas as much as 40% of children live in food insecure households and that for these children living with hunger has become part of the childhood norm. Then there is the fact that food allergies and intolerances affect the poor as they affect the wealthy and when you can’t eat just anything, provisioning becomes more difficult. And I’ve not even begun to talk about specific cultural differences.
Likewise, I would argue, that it is socially unacceptable to limit the availability of food choices such that the burden of insecurity is transferred onto someone else such as the farmer or food service worker or for that matter our children and grandchildren who will inherit our food system in both its environmental and biological manifestations.
I am aware it is not enough to assert our right to food and I have more questions than answers.
- Should we be demanding more of our government in regard to meeting our mandated right to food?
- How do we action that right, both individually but also collectively, in practical ways such that we don’t shift the burden onto others?
- How much of that burden of insecurity is designed into our food system and can we redesign it? And what would that look like?
- What do we need to know in order to do so?
I am also aware that there are immediate needs to be addressed right here, right now in this specific part of England. The clear evidence of this is the dramatic rises in food bank use not just nationally, but also more locally. The number of emergency food providers in the region currently measure well into the tens and are serving thousands, and is continuing to expand. At the same time, food businesses and farms are ceasing to trade because they can’t make ends meet and we have employees of the largest and most profitable food retail businesses dependent upon public money in order to feed their families.
- How can we meet our food security needs without remaining reliant on foodbanks?
- What happens to people when their 3 days allocation of emergency food runs out and what can we do to help change not just their condition but the circumstances that put them there initially?
- Are there other solutions to the problem beyond this emerging trade-off between government intervention and third and voluntary sector charity that we can pursue?
- Is it the case that a locally sensitive basket of coordinated solutions is the response rather than a one size fits all approach?
I ask this last question because I am aware there are a number of really creative initiatives being employed, some within the region, some of which we will hear about today, and some elsewhere that can give us hope in terms of how we might redefine our food system to be more fair and equitable. I am concerned not to just focus on the negatives but also to consider where hope might lie (see also this GeoFoodie post).
In closing I want also to refer to the words of LaDonna Redmond, a food justice activist and one of the TED speakers we featured over lunch. LaDonna points out: We have never had a fair or just food system. It is ours to invent. With that I would like to pass you over to Pam Warhurst. Thank You.