Dr. Megan Blake – Written evidence (FPO0030)
Relevant expertise of the author and ability to offer evidence
- Dr Blake is a Human Geographer and member of the Flagship Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. She has been conducting food-related research for the last 15 years in the United Kingdom and in Europe, The United States and Asia. She is an expert on everyday food insecurity and community-based food projects.
- Since 2013 her work in the United Kingdom has focused on the ways in which poverty, national scale policy, and local context shape access to food and inform the ways that households engage with food. Her work has been reported in the national and international press and via radio and television and she frequently acts as an invited commentator on issues to do with food insecurity in the UK. Dr. Blake also gave verbal and written evidence on rural poverty and how it is linked to food insecurity to the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty when he visited in 2018. The RSA recently admitted Dr. Blake as a Fellow in recognition of her work improving understanding and practice around food support for those living on low incomes.
- Based on collaborative research with community and third-sector organisations, local authorities, local and regional food alliances, food redistributors and members of the food industry, Dr. Blake has developed the Food Ladders framework. Food Ladders is an evidence-based framework for evaluation and approach for increasing household and community resilience through food-based activity. Food Ladders is informing how organisations like Community Shop use food to support communities. The Food Ladders framework also underpins how surplus food redistribution organisations such as FareShare and City Harvest understand the potential benefits of surplus food for charities and their eaters. The framework is also being incorporated into locally-based food plans being developed by local authorities (e.g., Doncaster, Barnsley, Sheffield) and regional and national food alliances, such as Greater Manchester Poverty Action and Sustainable Food Cities.
- While the 15 questions posed by the inquiry are important, my expertise speaks particularly to questions 1-5 although I touch tangentially on questions 12-15 in my responses.
Q1) What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant
trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges
persisted over a number of years?
- Food insecurity can be understood at a number of geographical scales. Countries such as the UK may be considered food secure in that there is an adequate supply of food to meet the nutritional needs of the population. At the same time because of issues such as lack of sufficient income to purchase food or lack of food availability in the place where people live individuals and households can be food insecure. A recent government publication concerning hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in the UK highlights that there are wide divides between those who have and those who are being left behind with the numbers in this latter category on the rise.  This report, the report from the UN Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty on the UK and a report by the UKSSD highlights that changes in the ways in which welfare support is provided to those on low incomes and the withdrawal of support and community services by local authorities as a result of ongoing and persistent budgetary cuts is increasing the numbers of people in food crisis as well as the numbers of those vulnerable to food insecurity. There is also evidence that because of stagnant wages in some sectors and increases in zero-hours contracts, the numbers of working households that struggle on to access sufficient and adequate food is also significant.
Q2) What are some of the key ways in which diet (including food insecurity) impacts on public
health? Has sufficient progress been made on tackling childhood obesity and, if not, why
- Eating foods that are low quality, but are often more affordable have implications for public health. Research by the Food Foundation on the affordability of the Eatwell plate shows that for those living in on the lowest incomes, meeting the Eatwell requirements will take up to 42% of household budgets after housing costs. My research and those of others also shows that food is the most flexible part of the household budget and is the thing that is spent after other fixed costs are addressed, which means that while 42% of the budget would need to be spent to achieve a healthy diet, after other costs a much smaller budgetary proportion is available for purchasing food.
- Importantly, food is more than just nutrients and calories. My research shows that those who cannot afford to buy food also cannot afford to socialise. We know from other research that strong friendship networks are an important means for living better longer, even with illness. Having access to food and being able to break bread together is an important means for maintaining those social ties. My work also illustrates that in addition to the stress and anxiety that poverty brings with it, the social isolation associated with not being able to socialise is contributing to the loneliness that is plaguing our nation.
Q3) How accessible is healthy food? What factors or barriers affect people’s ability to consume
a healthy diet? Do these factors affect populations living in rural and urban areas
- My research on foodscapes—The produced geographical contexts through which we source the food that we eat—demonstrates that food insecurity has knock-on effects that sediment into places. In areas where many live on low-incomes, this can translate into food contexts that have limited availability of foods that are required for a nutritious diet. People who have limited budgets choose foods that are low risk. These are foods they know family members will eat and that will fill them up, that won’t go off. Many households reported have £20 or less a week to spend on food. One young mother described it this way to me, “We rely a lot on frozen food. It is very hard to eat healthy meals. It’s affordability more than anything. To buy fresh fruit and veg, each week—it goes off so fast, and you constantly are topping up. And…you know… it is expensive when you are buying strawberries at two pounds a go and fresh grapes at two or three pounds a go.” At the same time, area shops stop selling highly perishable but more nutritious foods in favour of foods that have a longer shelf life because the commercial loss is reduced. Economists call this a two-platform or two -market problem.
- Increasing the consumption of foods that are healthier in areas where there is limited access will require both a consistent demand for the food and a supply that is consistent and affordable. Alongside charities like the Alexandra Rose Foundation, my research partners and I have been using a voucher system—Fresh Street—to try to address this two-platform issue. The Fresh Street vouchers were trialled in Barnsley and Sheffield, with some great success although the research, funded by the MRC, was small scale and designed to test the social acceptability of the vouchers and further work is needed to determine the longer-term effects of such a system on health outcomes. Some participants in our study, however, reported changing their diets as a result of the vouchers while others commented on their ability to try and incorporate new fruits and vegetables into their diets .
- In addition to having a functioning market, those on low incomes further struggle to eat healthy diets if they are required to travel significant distances on public transport to access that food, a problem particularly experienced by those living in rural locations. In addition to the limited availability or frequency of public transportation in rural locations, which may turn a quick trip to the supermarket into an all-day journey involving a considerable walk and a long and circuitous ride, the volume of food that can be carried on public transportation is limited. It is not possible to do a weekly household shop in this manner. Fruits and vegetables in addition to being expensive are bulky and easily damaged. Under these conditions, it is much easier, less expensive and more practical to purchase 5 frozen pizzas compared to a bag of potatoes, broccoli, and salad. Furthermore, transportation costs are added onto the cost of the food for those on low-incomes and as a result, these households limit the trips that they must make because money spent on transport is not money spent on food.
4) What role can local authorities play in promoting healthy eating in their local populations,
especially among children and young people, and those on lower incomes? How effectively
are local authorities able to fulfil their responsibilities to improve the health of people
living in their areas? Are you aware of any existing local authority or education initiatives
that have been particularly successful (for example, schemes around holiday hunger,
providing information on healthy eating, or supporting access to sport and exercise)?
- Although there have been significant cuts to LA budgets in recent years, many are trying to find new ways to use local assets and initiatives to support their communities. This is both fraught with potential limitations and benefits as well as good practice.
- There are a number of fantastic initiatives supported by local authorities to support children in the school holidays, but this is better addressed by those who focus on this such as Lindsay Graham or Greta Defeyter and her team at Northumbria University.
- The Fresh Street project mentioned under Q3 that we have been running has been conducted with the support of the local authorities in the areas where the project was run. In both instances, the LA paid at least some of the face value of the vouchers that were distributed. This project could easily be expanded to other local authorities where there is a willingness to support the cost of the vouchers. The project, because it uses small format fruit and veg shops and market stalls could also be done in collaboration with allotment societies, but this might need adjustments to rules around the distribution of excess produce. There is also scope for supporting veg delivery to areas where there is limited access by local authorities through supporting a van acting as a pop-up-shop. A review of the business rate structures that disadvantages small scale fruit and vegetable shops compared to takeaway shops would also be a useful council let intervention.
- In Greater Manchester, Mark Game’s The Bread and Butter Thing has been supported by funding from industry as well as from local authorities. His project distributes surplus food that is typically sourced from within the supply chain and well within date, it tends not to be back of retail store surplus. For a small weekly fee, residents in a number of communities across Greater Manchester that are identified food deserts and that are highly deprived according to the IMD classifications, receive three or four bags of fresh and chilled food. My research reveals that surplus food is that it can be somewhat unpredictable and quite often includes food items that are less familiar to those whose diets might be quite narrow, such as those living in low incomes. While this unpredictability poses challenges for those wishing to make a large number of uniform meals, in a social supermarket context or as is the case with The Bread and Butter Thing, this diversity means that people are able to try new foods in a manner that involves limited financial risk and as such diets are diversifying. I have had similar narratives from Community Shop, which provides a social supermarket alongside a community centre, community kitchen and support hub, as well as small charities such as Edlington Community Organisation in Doncaster. A key to unlocking the potential of surplus food for increasing diet diversity is to provide an infrastructure around it that enhances knowledges and cooking skills but does so in a way that is not patronising. Often community members can support each other in learning how to prepare unusual foods. While The Bread and Butter Thing and some Community Shops have received support from some local authorities, other smaller charities operating food pantries in ways that build food knowledge would benefit greatly from infrastructural and financial support.
- I would not advocate for exclusion zones around schools for take-away shops as a local authority solution. Because of labour market segmentation, those who work or own takeaway shops are more likely to be people who are from BAME backgrounds. Until we address labour market discrimination, removing the take-away as a livelihood strategy will further disadvantage this group. Instead, other solutions that limit poor food availability and make it easier to be profitable through the selling of better quality and higher nutrition food should be pursued. In Doncaster, take-away shops largely sourced their food from just two suppliers. Rather than focus on the take-away, perhaps there are interventions around nutritional standards that could be imposed on these suppliers.
Q5) What can be learnt from food banks and other charitable responses to hunger? What role
should they play?
- While charities that provide emergency food parcels have garnered significant attention, my research illustrates that food support in the UK for those who are either in crisis or at risk of crisis to food insecurity is much wider than this. For example, FareShare, who distribute surplus food to more than 10K charities, has significantly more charities that provide food support through other means than as a parcel. Meals are the most frequently cited ways that food is offered, though a significant number also offer cooking classes, cook and eat sessions, pantries and the like. The majority of charities offer more than one kind of food service (e.g., a pantry and a meal and a food parcel) and a significant proportion offer additional services alongside the foodservice. The network of Company Shops is a good example of one kind of organisations that offers multiple strands of support with and beyond food (please see the film referenced in footnote 18).
- While there is much that could be changed with national welfare policy and policy more generally to reduce social inequalities, there remains a very important role for locally based self-organised and supported activities using food. Providing households with more income or local authorities more money for needed services is needed, but community scaled interventions will still be needed that help people to reconnect with each other, with themselves and with food in ways that will improve their health and wellbeing outcomes.
- I have studied food support extensively through my work with charities, eaters, surplus food distributors, local authorities and food alliances. Throughout this work, I have paid attention to those things that are successful for helping local places to rebuild their foodscapes. Characteristics of organisations that have effective interventions that reduce isolation, increase capacity, diversify diets, increase resilience to shocks, enhance community cohesion and thereby reduce vulnerability to food insecurity include the following:
- Mobilise the more than nutrient, calorie and commercial aspects of food in their support.
- Create safe and inclusive spaces for experimentation and interactions with food.
- Use positive language of empowerment around food.
- Frame poverty in ways that are relatable because quite often people who are in poverty and are food insecure see others as being more in need and do not use the language of poverty to describe themselves. Instead, people talk about struggle and felling squeezed (see also the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Frameworks Institute).
- Build internally or connect with other organisations place-specific levels of support that recognise where people are at the moment and what they might need to do to move beyond that position as well as enable the recognition and enhancement of locally-based assets to create conditions for transformational self-organisation. Self-organised activities may involve creating new commercial enterprises or they may be new programmes that support their neighbours in other ways.
- It is from these observations and with resilience literature in mind that the Food Ladders framework was developed. According to Gary Stott, Director of Community Shop, about Food Ladders: “There is a need to understand the multiple levels of intervention both in the food system and the ways individuals engage with it. It’s an approach that could be applied to most communities to help build resilience at times of food insecurity.” Food Ladders can be a road map or an evaluation tool and considers three levels of support. These levels are evidence-based and built from observations of what real organisations are already doing. The levels of support are as follows:
- Rung 1: Catching. This support is crisis support and enables those accessing the service to cope with the crisis, but they do not, on their own help people to reduce vulnerability. Examples might be an emergency food parcel.
- Rung 2: Capacity building. This is a level of support for those who are not in crisis, but who struggle to access the mainstream commercial food system in a way that enables a diet that sustains their health and wellbeing. Examples include pantries, social eating spaces where people can develop friendships and make connections with each other. They may also be working toward building capacities for expanding food knowledges or skills such as cooking skills, budgeting skills that are in tune with the kind of budgets available to these households, or growing skills. See for example Kitchen Karts or Jamie Oliver’s 15 social enterprises.
- Rung 3: Self-organising for community change. This level involves co-produced activities that arise from service users and transform them from being a service user to a service provider. An excellent example is Migrateful, which is a cookery initiative where refugees and migrants teach each other their traditional cuisines and offer them to the public.
- For Food Ladders to work there must be a process that enables local learning and an expectation that people will move up from the different levels of support as it is a ladder.
- Local authorities can help this process by helping organisations to understand where they fit on the ladder and supporting development that ensure that all levels are being represented within their communities. They can also consider how their procurement policy encourages and supports local employment or the development of local suppliers (see the Preston Model for more on this)
- The food industry can provide surplus to support these activities and also offer expertise to those organisations as well as collaborate with food-using organisations to provide pathways into meaningful work that pays a living wage.
- While there is much to be concerned about in the current state of play within the British context around food insecurity, there is also much that can be built upon and a role for all sectors of society to play. I am available for further elaboration of these points should you wish to discuss them further.
11 September 2019 (some typographical errors have been corrected in this version. The version on the House of Lords website is available here http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/food-poverty-health-and-environment-committee/food-poverty-health-and-the-environment/written/105289.html