While Food Poverty is a popular term within the food charity sector in the UK, is it really what you want to be doing? Is it, in fact, everyday food insecurity that you seek to support?
The FSA in Northern Ireland defines Food Poverty as the inability of individuals and households to obtain an adequate and nutritious diet. Alongside the fact that low income means you can just afford very little or nothing at all, the FSA-NI and others highlight other aspects of poverty such as the poverty premium, which means those who are poor pay more for services and goods that enable them to live everyday lives compared to those with higher incomes and in more affluent places. Examples of such premiums include the higher costs of fuel to heat homes for those on metered systems, higher costs for accessing mobile carriers for those on pay as you go, higher costs associated with credit and lending, etc.
The poverty premium notion can also be applied to the costs of accessing food. Low-income areas are more likely to have a high number of outlets offering low value food that may be nutritionally questionable (e.g. high fat, salt content food with few fresh ingredients and a low proportion of fruit and vegetables). Likewise, low-income areas are more likely to be served by the convenience supermarkets, which carry fewer fruits and vegetables and have fewer product lines, and often do not carry the value branded goods or offer the multi-buy deals that are available from the large stores. To access higher quality food, those in low income areas must factor in travel cost. Travel costs increase the overall cost of the food. This becomes even more expensive for those who access this food via a taxi service or who must make more frequent trips using public transport. The result is that the poor pay a much higher proportion of their income to access good food compared to those on higher incomes. It also means that the real cost of food purchasing can be pushed beyond what is available to spend. Add in the real cost of cooking —e.g., equipment, electricity and water, and budgets get stretched even more.
Poverty has important implications for how people make food purchasing decisions. Mark Game, one of the founders of community shop and now the CEO of The Bread and Butter Thing, recently argued at a public event that those who cannot afford bus fare or electricity, will also be hungry. Research shows that people pay their fixed costs (rent and contracted obligations) and those required to meet external obligations (e.g., transport to work) first. Food and other household purchases become the flexible space within budgets for making household savings, with people trading down on quality or missing out when budgets are stretched. This can include having to make decisions such as buying very low quality food in order to purchase toothpaste or soap, parents skipping meals to ensure children have food, or choosing between cooking a meal or heating a home.
Research also shows that people will also choose food items that will provide the greatest value for money. For those on low incomes, value starts with ensuring that householders “get fed”. This can involve choosing ready meals, which while possibly more expensive per meal compared to made at home food, are efficient ways of spending. It is entirely logical to buy a couple of frozen pizzas for £2 each, because there is no waste, the food is filling and everyone likes it. Compare this to Cauliflower cheese. While only about £.48 per serving, It costs between £6.50 and £7.10 to make a pan with one cauliflower if you have to buy all the ingredients. Also, the recipe says serves 6 but experience says is more like 3 or 4. (https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/358608/cauliflower-cheese). The choice becomes obvious
The relationship between poverty and access to food is real, but is the focus on food poverty the right way to think about everyday food insecurity?
Firstly, food poverty suggests an obvious set of responses aimed at expanding household spending capacity. This includes a number of possibilities: 1) Increasing the skills within a household to be more efficient with an already tight budget through either cooking lessons or budgeting advice. 2) Giving or reducing the cost of food so that decisions about heating or food or how often or who eats do not need to be made. 3) Providing services to those who are out of work or on low waged work to get into higher paying and employment that is more regular.
While these interventions are needed and can be helpful, they are not enough because they focus entirely on the household as the site of solution. These interventions focus on enabling households cope in a crisis or adapt to the changing demands of the labour market and the economy. They do not, as a core mission, focus on enabling social transformation or building communities. They do not challenge the wider landscape that creates a poverty premium or gives rise to social divisions.
Secondly, everyday food insecurity arises out of circumstances that extend beyond access and affordability and has implications for not just the choices one has but also the experiences of food. Think of the person who may struggle with personal mobility (whether that be something like a frozen shoulder, a sprain, loss of strength or something more significant). Putting aside the difficulties of shopping for food with limited physical mobility, the design of most kitchens means that cooking from scratch for oneself can be very difficult. Kitchen cupboards may be too high to be able to reach stored food, dishes or cooking implements. Kitchen counters may be too high to be able to work effectively at them. Ovens and hobs may be positioned such that reaching burners safely or lifting cooked food out or off may be impossible. Kitchen configurations when not well matched with the bodies that use them can limit food choices for those in this position and create feelings that cooking is more trouble than it is worth.
Research on the elderly also shows the toll that social isolation from living alone can have on well-being (acknowledging that the elderly are not the only ones who might feel isolated). Eating alone can bring feelings of isolation to the fore. As such we see respondents to surveys about food and eating replying that they will just get a take-out, skip a meal and eat high-calorie snack food or nothing instead—because they can’t be bothered to cook for themselves.
Thirdly, food poverty focuses on individuals as eaters and thus limits their relationships with food to those of consumers. There are a number of organizations who use food to do so much more to help bring communities together and enhance community capacity. For example the social cafe’s and gardening programmes that provide work and social spaces for those who have physical disabilities. While the running of a cafe or garden may not be directly solving current experiences of food poverty through the food they produce or by meeting an immediate financial issue of those they employ, they are helping to prevent everyday food insecurity by enhancing food skills and understanding and by supporting the independence of the producers. Those benefiting from access to the food include the eaters, but also those involved in producing the product. Another example are the food-focused activities that some children’s holiday clubs provide. The focus on getting children from a particular location, which also may be low income, to interact with each other while playing with and learning about food similarly enhances food confidence and skill, whilst building associations between people and also feeding them.
Fourthly, food poverty in its focus on a lack of food limits food to nutrients and calories. Everyday food insecurity, including those dimensions connected to not being able to afford food, recognises that food is more than this. For example, people develop negative relationships with food when fear of a negative experience such as a family member refusing to eat the meal, criticisms about wasted resources and the attendant anxieties waste brings with it, and feelings of failure to care and provide for one’s family preclude experimentation with new foods. Negative relationships can result in more constrained diets. However, when not wrapped in stress and lack food can take on qualities that enable us to cement relationships that can result in support networks between neighbors, which may be mobilised when crisis happens. Positive experiences of food sharing can lead to lower levels of social isolation, a sense of purpose and a more positive view of the social environments in which we live.
Finally, for organisations in the UK who want to keep the focus of their effort on those who struggle financially, food poverty is not measured directly. Instead, indirect measurements are used, such as a referral from a health or social worker or other person in a position of authority. Not only has this referral system been shown to increase feelings of lack and stigma by those being evaluated, evaluation itself is another form of middle class control. In other instances the focus is on households who are “on benefits”, while this may seem a clear approach now, the current benefits reforms and in particular the movement on to Universal Credit will mean that either everyone in the country who receives some element of Universal Credit will be on benefits (including those receiving child tax credits, earnings up to £20K w/ 1 child and 25K w/ 2 or more children). The evaluation is an assurance to those who “have” that those who receive the food are really in need (worthy), as opposed to someone who is feckless.
What does the term “everyday food security” enable us to do?
Thinking about the problem through the lens of everyday food insecurity opens up new ways that food might be used to support the resilience of households. It also offers scope to transform neighborhoods and villages from locations where people live largely isolated from each other to communities where people interact and collectively thrive. An aim to achieve everyday food security includes reducing the stress and anxiety associated with the material disadvantage of being unable to provision, cook and eat in the ways that are currently considered normal but also to challenge the assumptions of normal. It is also about encouraging positive relationships with food such that fear of experimentation is reduced and sharing is increased. To do this, interventions would aim to support individuals and communities.
If the income related aspects of everyday food insecurity remains a chief priority of charity organisations, then the better way to address this is to target those communities where those who are on low incomes live and include all residents to avoid distinguishing one from another. Some organisations are already acting to avoid the stigma of selection and to try to reduce barriers between neighbors by targeting lower income areas and making food access available to all based on different payment/non-payment models (e.g., pay as you feel, donation, low membership fee, etc.). People feel social divisions most acutely in their everyday interactions and these are more likely to be experienced in the towns and neighborhoods where they immediately live.
While food poverty is something to be solved, it is quite unsolvable in the immediate without finding a new way to enact society, control the physical world, and organise the economy. Achieving everyday food security happens one day at a time and in the places where people live right now. And by building transformation and resilience into the approach it also enables the people and communities to be sustainable and independent leading to more permanent and longer term change.
 Here the term everyday food insecurity means the difficulties and stresses that people have in accessing enough food that is safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate on a regular basis. This is a different understanding of global food insecurity, which tends to focus on our global ability to continue to be able to produce enough food to feed a global population, or national food insecurity, which is concerned, with a regular national supply of food for the population as a whole.