Over the last year I’ve been conducting research with Doncaster Public Health to help them understand how to move beyond interventions that target people and try to nudge them into changing their behaviour. My work has focused on trying to understand how context shapes what people can and cannot do. This post highlights some of the findings from the research and makes some suggestions about how councils can support communities to be more resilient food landscapes.
The research sought to understand why some highly deprived communities are producing lower rates of children’s overweight and obesity compared to the statistical expectation. The aim was to help local authorities (not just Doncaster) to learn lessons from those communities as well as consider how councils might support those communities.
Here are the main points from the research:
Nutrition is relational and contextual
Research in this project and other projects we have conducted here at the University of Sheffield tells us that what we eat involves a lot more than just the nutrients and calories in food. For those providing the food—usually women—this is hard, complex, skilled, and caring work.
By this I mean, women ask themselves when they go shopping–
- Given my family’s preferences, what will and won’t they eat? How can I make sure they are full?
- Given the demands on my budget, what can I afford to eat?
- Given the demands on my time, where can I go to get food?
- Given where I live, what is available here?
For many women we spoke to this meant walking around the shops in the town looking for the best deals. It can also involve a lot of time. We spoke to one woman who cooked several times a day and several different meals a day. When we asked her why she did this, it was because she didn’t want her 20 year old son and her husband to eat take-away food after work. She felt that what she cooked was better for them, and their work and eating schedules did not coincide with the eating schedules of each other or the grand children she looked after after school. These were women who know how to cook*.
Given all this, nutrition becomes relational—People ask themselves: What can I offer that is better compared to other options that are available? This relational notion of nutrition is in stark contrast to how public health and dietary guidelines are constructed that direct people toward absolute measures.
Moreover, If you live in a community with few food options and have very little money the work of feeding your family healthy food becomes very difficult very quickly.
Communities can support people to eat well.
My research is suggesting community organisations are doing a lot to support people in their communities to eat well. They are offering access to food that enables a stretching of budgets, not just for those in crisis, but also for those hovering just above crisis.
Crisis can occur at any time for people and is caused by a range of things. I’ve heard stories about people in crisis because of unexpected job loss that is coupled with a built in delay of up to 8 weeks—that is 2 months—before benefits can start.We were told a story of a couple who were self-employed and had a good business, but then he was diagnosed with cancer and had to stop working and she couldn’t carry on doing the business by herself.
Community organisations offer summer programmes for children that not only give access to food, but also give parents some opportunity to meet with others, to share tips about where to find lower cost food, strategies for applying for support, and information about what support is available, and access to the photocopiers and computers and internet connectivity that are needed in order to apply for what support is available.
One of the community organisations I spoke to also offered cooking lessons based on slimming world recipes to help women better feed their families in ways that also appealed the family members and within the constraints of what is available to them.
Austerity is biting…Hard. And there are few local policy distinctions that give priority to organisations and businesses that want to offer good food.
Life under austerity and the welfare reforms that are rolling out on the back of central government policy is really, really difficult. People are struggling and councils are struggling. Programmes that communities have relied upon, such as children’s centres, are being closed. Charities don’t just pop up out of the ground like mushrooms. As is the case for for-profit organisations they must pay rents, electric bills, insurance, and so forth. Bills that do not distinguish between charities and for-profit organisations. In order to keep going they need staff to coordinate volunteers, and apply for funding grants, as well as think up, organise and promote activities. The current financial context makes this very difficult, and it is harder for those in places where there are few financial resources. Likewise, it is more profitable to offer a low-cost, lower-nutritional food offering compared to a low-value, but higher nutritional source of food. In other words, economically it makes more sense to start a fish and chip business compared to a green grocers.
Old, top-down working models are not feasible in the current climate.
It’s clear that we have to find new ways of working together that are sensitive to the contexts where people live. Community Food Partnerships are one way to achieve this. To do this though, councils need to:
- listen to communities to understand their values and priorities
- learn to communicate with communities in ways that express and reflect their needs and understandings of the problems.
- not replicate what is already going on, but help what is being done already to grow and prosper.
- This might mean offering financial resources, but it can also mean changing rate structures, for example by giving rate discounts to fruit and veg vendors where profit margins are much less compared to fast food outlets.
- Or by moving away from treating council buildings or land as only financial capital toward a model that views these spaces as community spaces –libraries for example have a lot to offer—beyond books—and they are being closed.
- Or by supporting food markets in communities that provide fresh food and helping takeaways to access this food and enabling people and groups to sell their allotment surpluses.
- Help people in these urban areas who are not feeling a deep financial pinch to understand that people who are less well off financially are not undeserving of support.
There is a lot that can be done.
The report from a recent Food Hack event that I co-hosted with Director of Public Health, Dr. Rupert Suckling outlines some of the ideas that Doncaster plans to take forward.
Both Rupert and I were invited to discuss this research and the Food Partnership on a recent BBC Radio Sheffield broadcast. My interview was first, followed by Rupert’s. You can listen to them both here:
Megan Blake, BBC Radio Sheffield 15 July 2017
Rupert Suckling, BBC Radio Sheffield 15 July
*We found our participants were confident cooks. The idea that many low income people do have cooking skills is supported by research conducted in Canada as well by Buck-McFadyen 2016 . While there are studies that indicate that many poor do not have cooking skills, this research has focused largely on the poor and do not make comparisons with how the skills of those who are not poor. See also Caraher’s work, which points out that in Britian, domestic cooking skills are limited, but perhaps more important to this discussion is the point that low income are not more likely to be unable to cook compared to the wealthy, but in fact the converse relationship is more likely to be true.
This research was funded by ESRC IAA grant ES/L0090991/1