Yesterday a report highlighting the presence of food deserts in the UK commissioned by Kelloggs was released to the media. I supported the report as I feel the issue is important. The full report was researched and written by Scott Corfe of the Social Market Foundation.  The report is thorough and insightful.  It does not retreat to solutions that propose plopping in supermarket as is often the policy response to this problem.  It just highlights an issue.

There is also a map the goes along with the report showing the most deprived food deserts in the UK (food desserts are places where there is an absence of a way to access food).  The important thing to understand about this research is that it identifies areas where there are likely to be high concentrations of low income people who will have the added burden of having to travel further than others to access food. This will insure an additional cost for them in terms of time or money.  If you have £20 a week to spend on food then you don’t want to be spending some of that on the transport to get to the shops. You want that money to go toward food.

On top of this you must carry what you get, you will choose food items that are easy to carry and make decisions about what you really need.  A bag of potatoes is heavy. Veg takes up a lot of volume and goes off quickly.  Fruit is expensive.  This will limit what else you can get. Frozen pizza however is much lighter and easier to carry.  You can buy 5 and put them in the freezer and then eat them through the week.  You will know that they will still be as good on day 5 as on the day you purchased them.  Everyone will eat this food and feel full.  The veg are a heavier and riskier prospect and you can’t afford the risk.

Importantly the mapping is national coverage research. As a result it cannot rely on survey data, although the report does provide some very good discussion of survey data concerning people’s perceptions of cost and affordability.  Mapping is different, to be sure of the analysis you need very large data sets that provide universal coverage.  Data collected by the government is usually where you have to go for this.

For this research, data on VAT registered food stores were used to calculate presence. Small markets and corner shops will not generally be on this list.  Some of these may provide excellent fruit and veg options at a low cost but some will certainly not.  This data is made available in what are known as mid level super output areas (MSOA)

The data for deprivation is collected and compiled in England and Wales into what are known as lower level super output areas (LSOA). The area units in Scotland are a bit different, but the principle is broadly the same.  These are areas that have a standard sized population to enable comparisons.  What this means is that very urban areas with high concentrations of people will be geographically small, while more rural areas will be larger in order to capture the number of people who define an area.

To be able to correlate this data with the store data LSOA’s had to be combined to make up the MSOA’s.  It may be the case that there is a highly deprived LSOA in an area next to a not-so deprived LSOA.  Both of these might be in the same MSOA.  As a result of this geography, the map may represent some areas as not being highly deprived despite the fact that there is an area with high deprivation in it because the effect is offset by averaging.  Area deprivation is also a proxy for food insecurity.  We do not collect national scale data on everyday food insecurity, though there is some effort spearheaded by the MP Emma Lowell-Buck that is underway to redress this.  It is meeting resistance, however.

What the map shows, and this is important so I will repeat it, is that there are some areas of the country where there are large concentrations of people who are more likely to struggle to access food. This suggests a number of possible solutions that either individually or in combination introduce low cost fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods into the area, reduce the costs of transport, or increase the money that low income people have to spend on food.

But we must not think these are the only places where people may be struggling with everyday food insecurity. The geographies of the data mean that a rural village that contains a highly deprived community may be located in a geographically large area where there are stores but these are not in the village.  People living in that village will experience their life as living in a food desert, but it may not show up as such on the map.

It is also important to remember that the experience of everyday food insecurity is personal. You could live next door to a store that sells good quality food, but if you had to walk up and down 50 stairs to get to that store you would struggle.  You might look for an easier option, which might mean buying lower quality food.  If on top of this you find climbing stairs difficult and you struggle to carry anything for any distance, this store would be out of reach for you despite its proximity.  Likewise if the cost of this food is beyond what you can afford to purchase it also is out of reach for you.

I was asked yesterday on a radio programme what individuals could do to manage this issue in their own lives. There is very little on the individual scale that those living in these places can do to resolve their situation other than move, and that also is expensive and most likely not practical.  People should not have to move house to access food. People should not have to struggle to access food full stop, and certainly not in a country that is as wealthy as the UK.  Addressing everyday food insecurity is a collective issue, weather that be at the scale of national government or local government or within communities themselves or at the larger scale of British society more generally.  This is also not a bleeding heart left issue–it is an issue that is about approaching people with care rather than suspicion and it is about morals and what we value.

As a result of supporting the Kellogg’s report I was also asked to be on the Victoria Darbyshire  Show on BBC2. You can see the interview here.