I was recently invited to participate in an impact report launch for a charity organization. This organisation works with food producers and supermarkets to help people in low income areas cope with and adapt to the challenges that they face. It also helps those communities transition into places where people want to live, raise children and grow old. Central to that organization’s work is the idea that people and communities have assets that with a little help can be mobilized to achieve these ends and that food facilitates this. Here is the broad text of my talk. I believe that adopting an approach that supports people and communities to be able to recognize what they already have is key toward moving beyond longer term transformation.
My mother has a saying—Freeze the moment. She says this when she wants to be in the moment and then to be able to remember a moment or event that is important to her, rather than let it slip by. As a young person I used to inwardly groan when she said it as it was something that parents do, but I am glad she did it as it worked. When I think back on the times she said “freeze the moment“, the majority are associated with shared meals where people are talking, sharing their lives, and laughing together.
Food is so much more than calories and nutrients. When people talk about food they acknowledge the social aspects. They talk about good food as food people like to eat, to share with friends and family, to express care, to celebrate achievement, to find connections with someone new. In short, to be human.
Increasingly people in the UK are struggling to be food secure. Not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands. Those living in what we call highly deprived communities—places where income is low, crime is high and amenities are few—there is also an added premium for accessing food. This premium arises for a number of reasons. It may be that local commercial options are limited because the stores are small and offer a reduced range of items or don’t carry the lowest cost brands or provide the offers. It may be that there is no commercial option that is within walking distance and public transport or taxis are needed to access the food.
Making cooked food also requires fuel. When people are on low incomes they are more likely to use a pay as you go household fuel service to be able to control and manage costs as this form introduces flexibility in being able to turn it off, but what is used does cost more than the tariffs for a contract. Ovens and cookers are very fuel inefficient, but a microwave is not. What this means is that microwave meals become the best option for providing food that fits within the needs of a family where the aim is feed people food that everyone will eat without argument, will fill them up, will not produce food waste, and will be easily calculate-able within a household budget. For these households, food becomes a site of stress and anxiety—it ceases to be good food. It loses its capacity to enable freezable moments.
On top of this cuts to local authorities are resulting in losses of spaces where people can come together. Without interactions between people, communities break down. People become isolated and long-term food insecurity increases. Children, young people, parents, the elderly all experience everyday food insecurity and so do communities.
But, and this is a big but. These people and their communities are not wholly definable by lack. My research at The University of Sheffield with communities and engagements with partner organizations that seek to support communities shows that these communities and the people who live in them have assets as well. There is the potential of a child, the love of families, the inventiveness of residents, the care of neighbors. Assets are also the memories we hold, the knowledge we acquire, the generosity we harbor. When nourished, these assets can help communities cope and adapt and then transform into places where people want to live, to raise children and to grow old.
Our food system has the capacity to support the nourishment of these resiliences. In the UK, it is estimated that we waste ten million tonnes of edible food each year. If we converted this into apples it would equate to sixty seven billion apples that when brought together would fill 509 Olympic sized swimming pools. This is not food waste, but wasted food. Food waste is food that is inedible, wasted food is food that has the capacity to feed people and foster communities. When food is wasted we waste not just the calories and nourishment of the food, but also its capacity to be good food that helps to freeze moments.
Redistributing economically surplus food and turning it into good food is not easy. In fact it is challenging. The challenges are material in that food is living, it has biology that turns it into waste if we wait to long to use it. The challenges are logistical in that were food is located is not always where it is needed. And there are challenges with regard to turning food from a handout into good food that nourishes communities because it requires a thought shift from identifying lack to asset development. To facilitate this change, organisations need expertise, drive and determination. It takes networks of connections, time to listen to and support community members and help them see where there assets are, a willingness to take risks, and a lot of reflexive contemplation. When food support is done with assets in mind both people and their communities flourish and freezable moments are made.