Every year at The University of Sheffield, the Green Impact team organises the Sustainability Skills and Education (SusSEd) programme, a collection of free lunchtime talks open to all staff and students. These talks are delivered by academics from across the university and provide an opportunity for attendees to learn about the fantastic research and work taking place to advance sustainability.
This year, the theme is ‘Cities of the Future’. I gave a talk about the social value of surplus food and how it links to the sustainable development goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.You can watch the video of my talk here.
A bit more about the talk:
We often think about surplus food as waste, as the disregarded food that didn’t manage to get sold or for some reason did not make it to the supermarket at all.
However, surplus food has other values that, when enfolded into community activity, go beyond nutrients, calories and financial savings or charity. In these contexts, surplus food can help diversify diets, empower people to eat and cook better food at home, connect communities, and re-establish local markets for healthier food by stimulating demand. When we make this change we can move beyond victorian forms of charity toward approaches that enable people to build their capability to live their best lives and have positive relationships with food in ways that are socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.
In this talk, I discuss the capacities of surplus food and consider how community-based redistribution of surplus food when organised differently has the ability to feed into how we can meet the sustainable development goals.
Quite often when we talk about household food (in)security in economically wealthy contexts we end up conflating it with poverty. Poverty is more than an inability to access food, it is also an inability to participate fully in economic life, which then has implications for what we can consume. Given our society values market exchange this means participation is easiest achieved via the ability to purchase what we need. Money is important but not the whole story. Food security is also a geographical issue and one whereby our contexts squeeze our capabilities.
The current approach and the problem
Money is a resource, as are friendship networks, the features of the places where we live and access food (our foodscapes), and personal or household capability to utilise food. Where there is a deficit in one area, we can mobilise the resources we have in other areas to fill the gap. But, when our resources are squeezed this creates vulnerability. The UN defines food security as being able to mobilise all these resources to secure the food we need to live a healthy and fulfilling life.
Focusing only on the relationship between money and food security results in a linear, cause and effect way of thinking. We have seen in other contexts where approaching problems in a linear fashion has created unintended consequences, sometimes resulting in more harm than solution. A good example is the green revolution, which sought to increase agricultural production through the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other forms of industrial agriculture. The result is environmental degradation and loss of animal and plant species and bio-diversity.
Money will help address some of the issues but it will not build up the resources in the other areas. Money on its own will not do anything to challenge our commercial food system and create new ways of organising our social life so that it is more socially just. If we want to ensure people are able to live a happy and healthy life we need also to ensure that they have all the resources they need to do so and are empowered to recognise and use the resources they already have.
Food insecurity once it takes root in communities settles into the landscape and onto the people who live there. As people cannot afford to purchase foods that lack of demand ensures that those foods disappear from the supermarket shelves. We end up with food deserts. As people no longer are exposed to these foods they forget what they taste like, how to cook them and even what they are. Diets become narrow in those places as people retreat to what they know they like. If you are financially stretched, you are not going to have the luxury of being able to try new things. If you find you or your family don’t like them, then you have wasted what is a stretched resource. My experience with so many households who are on low incomes is that they have amazing budgeting skills and know, down to the penny where there is a bargain to be had and how much they can save. It is a resource that enables their survival–up to a point.
To illustrate this further, what we saw during the pandemic lock-downs was that people’s health conditions meant that they could not go out to get food, which impacted negatively their capability to secure this food. We also saw that people living in places where the availability of food was limited ended up having to spend more whilst getting less. This lack of local availability for many was partly the result of years of movement in our food system toward healthy food becoming expensive, while less healthy food is more affordable. This, of course, negatively impacts people’s physical health. At the same time, the financial squeeze on what was already a situation where budgets were squeezed for many causes mental health difficulties.
Poor mental health manifests in particular ways. It can lead to addictions as a way to self-medicate. It can lead to low self-esteem. I can drive people to self-isolate, which in turn whittles away at people’s ability to access the social resources that they may have once had and which they could rely upon in times of trouble.
So what do we do?
If we consider food security as a system, then we need to consider how we can intervene in all the relevant spaces where food (in) security manifests itself. This includes considering how people are able to interact with and know food, the spaces where they access it and how they engage with those spaces, and the physical, economic and social barriers that they face that limit their ability to fully engage with food, and their physical and emotional states. This requires systems solutions. The food ladders framework prompts this sort of systems thinking.
Systems solutions have other advantages. They allow us to look for and consider unintended (and often pernicious) consequences. They make space for everyone to be involved rather than individualizing some as targets of support and others as providers. But shifting from thinking about customers to communities can be difficult. It is sometimes messy and involves relinquishing control. It also takes time. Someone once said to me that trust works at the speed of community and community building takes a lot of time.
I teach on a module called Why Geography Matters. This is required for all our level 1 students. We start the module with a section on the history of geographical thought. I have 5 hours to talk about the emergence of the discipline and how we approach knowledge production. We discuss things like should geography have a cannon, whose experience and understanding are not included in the dominant narrative of the discipline’s emergence, and we consider if knowledge contributions are separate from or inseparable from the person who thought it. The students offer insightful reflections on these questions.
The module then focuses on the specific research of two human geographers and two physical geographers. We ask the students to consider what unites us as a discipline. Are we the same or are we parts of a whole that when taken together provide a complex understanding of the systems that shape and influence our social, physical and mental worlds? There are some shared themes and concepts that we deploy in our research that aren’t core to the ways those in other disciplines investigate. What we think and how we engage with each other sediment into our landscapes in material ways just as physical processes shape those landscapes. Its a fascinating discipline with freedom to focus on every topic because geography is everywhere.
In addition to teaching the section on the history of geographical thought, I also discuss my research in one of the human geography sections. I focus on food insecurity in this section. I gave the first of two two-hour lectures this week.
Food insecurity is absolutely geographical. The scale at which we approach the issue makes visible certain geographical relationships as well as certain issues. Going from one scale to another reveals new problems and solutions. Being specific about where we locate the problem is important for this reason. My focus is at the local and household scales. I talk about how foodscapes are shaped by the ways we go about our lives. Individual and organisational practices make our material landscapes in very specific ways, which then has implications for what is possible and what are barriers for those living in those places. If we are going to have a fairer world, we need to understand these processes and repair the damage that has been inflicted on places.
Just a note of clarity. In the lecture I say that my parents did not help me to purchase my first home. My mother, however did help me to purchase the house that I currently live in and I am forever grateful for that. I was recently divorced and in my 50’s. Through this act of support she has enabled me to feel somewhat more secure about my old age. As I see my university pension being cut and my wages in real terms decreasing year on year, this is such an important contribution to my wellbeing. I am lucky in this regard. People who are not able to receive this sort of support from their families are absolutely at a disadvantage.
‘To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.’
The University of Sheffield Geography Society runs a campaign in November seeking to highlight issues students may face around mental health. This year they asked me to participate, so I am sharing my experiences of Dyslexia.
Dr Megan Blake, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, Interdisciplinary Researcher and Food Security Expert
Estimates suggest that one in five people are neurodiverse. This statistic does not mean that one in five people you will meet at university will be neurodiverse. There are a lot of barriers that limit the ability of neurodiverse people to access a university degree. Some of these are structural—how universities measure success and design knowledge acquisition—some are about perceptions of neurodiversity.
I am dyslexic. I have always been dyslexic, as it is something you have when you are born. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability linked to how we process and remember language, how it manifests will be different for different people. I struggle with spelling, punctuation, proofreading, accurate copying, keeping focused in my writing, retrieving words under pressure, right and left, short term memory, calendars, and how I experience time. I don’t have the usual problems with reading comprehension that many dyslexic people do, probably because I had a lot of reading support as a child. I am also a lateral and interdisciplinary thinker, creative, can identify patterns, and think in complex systems. The latter I see in my head but cannot always convert to words, so I draw diagrams.
When I was a child, I felt stupid because I had to go to the remedial reading group, and I could not spell. I was not tested as a child for dyslexia because, at that time, people thought girls did not have dyslexia. So, I was just not intelligent. Except, I was super bright at some things. Later, at university, I was not tested because the tutor thought there would be stigma, and as I was doing well, it was most likely that I had ‘good strategies’. I do, but I also spend a lot longer and become discouraged and exhausted doing things that my colleagues can do quickly and with little effort. Not being tested meant that I did not receive the legally required necessary adjustments for achieving success and a work-life balance.
I have also struggled with feelings of self-worth and imposter syndrome due to the widely held biases that exist. Assumptions that suggest people with dyslexia have no place in an academic setting. Finally, in my early 50’s I was tested, and my long-held suspicions were confirmed. Interestingly, the way dyslexia is diagnosed is through a series of tests. What specifically indicates dyslexia is being very, very good at some tasks and not very good at others. For example my problem solving skills are well above average (in the top 5%), but my rapid naming skills are well below overage (in the bottom 5%). This confirmation has enabled me to get the help I need. I also learned to recognise that because of how my brain functions, I am one of a minority of people who can think in ways that linear thinkers cannot. This difference helps me to solve problems and to be an expert in my field. Dyslexic brains existed before humans developed reading and writing. To exclude people based on this social construction is to ignore what we have to contribute.
My advice? There are some practical things you can do, and I think this works for any neurodiverse person. Start by keeping a diary of what you struggle with or what tasks make you anxious, as well as those things that come easily for you and which you enjoy. This notetaking will help you identify and prioritise those activities that give you a positive feeling. If you find that you have to do those less comfortable activities, try to find out what support there might be. It could be learning a work-around or identifying a piece of software or technology. It might be something as simple as how you arrange your workspace. I encourage you to get tested if you think you may be neurodiverse. Just knowing can be pretty empowering. Find others with the same issues with whom to talk. They can help you identify strategies and help you feel less alone. Finally, remember that your weakness is also your strength. Take pride and celebrate what you bring to the table, and don’t dwell on what causes you to struggle.
I was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 today for the you and yours show. This very quick interview starts at about minute 29 and you can listen to it directly from the i-player here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001153x
They sent me four questions before hand:
What are food deserts?
What impact do they have on communities?
We don’t cook at home, is this the problem?
If we changed our understanding would this address the issue?
The interview was short. If I had had just a little more time, this is what I would have said:
While it is not right that anyone should go hungry, this new map of local authority estimates of three measures of food insecurity for the UK shows that it is much worse in some places compared to others.
In the UK many are not food secure. Food security is the ability to consistently afford, access and utilise the food needed to maintain good health and wellbeing. When we think of food insecurity, we tend to think of it in relation to low-income countries. More recently, however, as a nation we are beginning to recognise that a significant proportion of the UK population is not food secure. Much of this awareness raising has been as a result of efforts by food charities and campaigns such as that spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.
While this awareness raising has been welcome, the focus has been on those who are at the sharpest end of food insecurity; those who are going hungry.
Food banks have been set up in communities where people have recognised this problem of hunger with the intention of meeting immediate food need.
Hunger is understood as having been hungry at least once in the previous month but were unable to get food. This is our first measure.
We identify two further measures.
Those who struggle include people who have cut back on food or skipped meals. In addition they have received support from their community with food essentials or they indicated they could not get to the shops, could not get a delivery, or were too ill to get food. Those who experience these additional indicators of food insecurity are not typically included in the statistics, which tend to focus on financial reasons for food insecurity.
A further measure are those who worry about being able to adequately supply the food they need for their families and themselves. This latter group are typically considered marginally food secure because they have enough food. However, they may have traded down on the nutritional quality of the food they purchase (Drewnowski 2012). We have included this category because there is firstly, LLP a mental stress associated with food worry. Secondly, these are people who are at risk of having low or very low food security, for example through an unexpected expense, illness or relationship breakdown. We have seen many people over the period of the pandemic who have fallen from this group into the other types of food insecurity.
The burden of these forms of food insecurity includes immediate threats to health and wellbeing (Blake 2019). This burden includes the stress of trying to manage a budget that may not extend sufficiently, the worry about providing adequate nutrition, and the mental load associated with trying to navigate limitations imposed by transportation, inadequate equipment, cost, physical ability and household food preferences. Trading down on food quality and nutrition extracts a price to physical health in terms of diet related illness but it also results in narrower diets and the loss of understanding about what certain foods are and how to cook them. Finally, research demonstrates that those who struggle to access food are also isolated, which has an impact on quality of life and wellbeing (Blake 2019).
Food insecurity is concentrated into places. What this means is that cumulatively the effects of food insecurity include reductions in the ability of a community to be resilient in the face of crisis because community based social networks have been lost. Local foodscapes have become food deserts because the demand for and the supply of healthy food is not present in the place where people live at a price they can afford. The burden of food insecurity also means that people in these communities struggle to see how they can contribute to achieving wider social and environmental goals that shape life in the UK today and help define us as a society.
Many local governments have spent considerable time and resources enabling access to food by supporting food banks whilst also moving those using foodbanks onward. Many are also looking at ways to support those who are moderately food insecure and those who are worried about being able to purchase food that contributes to their health, social and local economic wellbeing. Until now, however, there has not been an estimate of these three levels of food insecurity at the local authority scale across the whole of the UK.
The UK Local Government food security estimates were developed to help provide local level benchmarking. The purpose is to inform the types of services and support that are needed to achieve food security for everyone and to move beyond a focus on food banks.
The data sources and methodology used to create the estimations are briefly outlined in the briefing document. Further background, context, results and implications will be shortly published in the academic literature and this document will be updated with references to those publications. If, in the meantime, you have further questions, please do contact the research team.
The research team would be delighted to hear how the UK LAFI estimations are being used and can be contacted via our emails listed on the briefing. This map was a collaborative research effort between Angelo Moretti (MMU), Adam Whitworth (Strathclyde) and Megan Blake (Sheffield) drawing on survey data supplied by the Food Foundation.
If you would like further information about the Food Foundation data, please contact email@example.com.
An excel file of the estimates is available upon request.