Thinking about food security as a systems issue helps us find additional solutions

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.

Pillars of food security are expressed as a system.

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.

How food insecurity settles into landscapes

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.

The relationship between mental and physical health and food

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.

GODAN seminar on Food Insecurity and Food Ladders as a way repair communities.

In June I gave a webinar to an international audience who are part of the Global Open DAta Network (GODAN). GODAN’s mission is to harness data to eradicate hunger and malnutrition across the globe.

The talk is in three parts.

In the first segment I outline the four dimensions of food security as defined by the UN FAO include affordability, access, utilisation and consistency over time. The FAO argue that all four pillars must be in place for a household to be food secure.  While the lack of affordability is well recognised as a cause of food insecurity in wealthy countries, other dimensions are often overlooked.  Furthermore, some groups are more likely to experience greater vulnerability across these four pillars compared to others. 

In the second segment I look at the effects of food insecurity on individuals and households. These effects sediment into landscapes.  Moreover, these effects reinforce and amply the problems that give rise to food insecurity in the first place.

In the final segment I talk about my Food Ladders framework. Food Ladders is an evidence-based framework that helps to structure local responses to food insecurity and repair its effects through targeted interventions that catch those who need it most, build the capacity of those who are able, and facilitate transformation in ways that support all of four food security pillars.

You can watch the video here:

Megan Blake, GODAN Food Poverty webinar series

Food insecurity, its effects and ways to address them

We all eat. As many as 1 in 5 people in the UK, through no fault of their own struggle to access the food they need to live a healthy life. Our research shows that moderately and mildly disabled people and children–disproportionately bear the burden of hunger. It is not right that in a wealthy country like the UK there is such hardship and struggle. In this short video I talk about the causes and the effects of food insecurity and suggest some of the ways that we can act locally to help reduce hunger and hardship and stress and distress in our communities by helping them repair the damage that food insecurity causes.

For ease I am also attaching the slides so you click through them.

Flood

The water laps, and even when it does not lap there is always the possibility. It comes in and overtakes. You worry when it rains and you cannot always predict the damage the rain will do.

When it happens what you have is destroyed. The water permeates and rots the foundation. The damp and disease it carries invades your body. It leaves its traces on the walls. You try to clean the muck and grime from your memories and the material objects that hold them. You think you have it all cleaned up, but then it happens again.

Years of neglect have eroded the flood defenses that used to provide protection, at least from the worst of it. It lapped at your door, but didn’t invade where you live. It does now. But this does not matter to those who are in charge.

People ask, “Why you don’t leave the flood plain and go up the mountain?” To them, where you live is a choice. Choice is a myth, it is a privilege actually only afforded to a few.

It takes resources and stamina to go up the mountain. You are out of both. It would also mean leaving those things and people behind, whom you have come to love. Those you know you can depend upon. It doesn’t feel like there is room for everyone up the mountain. Besides, they do things differently up there. Living on the side of the mountain requires its own skills and knowledges. You don’t feel you would belong.

This is what it is like to live in poverty in the UK today. A wealthy country, where the people who have gossip in the isles of the supermarket as they choose between buying the whole salmon or the pork roast because they can practice thrift and get three meals by bulk cooking. For those who are struggling financially, the choice is much more stark–“should we get frozen pizza or the micro burgers“. A whole salmon or pork roast is not even an option as it would eat up the whole month’s food budget. What would you eat for the rest of the month. “We will get the pizza. Everyone likes pizza and it will last in the freezer until we need it. If we add a few mushrooms it is also more healthy compared to the micro burger. If we add a bit of tomato sauce it will also taste a bit better.” Pizza is self contained. It does not go to waste. It fills up your family and you can carry it home easily. This is how to practice thrift when your budget is stretched.

We need to repair our social welfare system and our community infrastructures in order to provide a defenses against the impacts of poverty on our neighbours and communities. This system acts like the flood defenses and can prevent future and further damage. But it does not repair the damage wrought by previous breaches. Nor does it help these households and communities settle on higher ground. We start by protecting but we should not stop there. Everyone deserves to be able to feel secure and to be able to define what that security looks like.

Behind hungry children there are hungry parents.

Behind hungry children are hungry parents. We know that typically parents feed their children before they feed themselves in the UK. We also know that households that are most likely to be food insecure tend to live in areas where others are also struggling. While enough money to purchase food is important, it isn’t enough. We need solutions that address the immediate need but also solutions that work toward a longer term, socially just resilience.

I was recently invited to participate in a webinar on children’s food insecurity. It was attended by more than 300 people from across industry, policy, community, health, and academic sectors. It was organised by Bernadette Moore and Charlotte Evans of the N8 Food Systems Policy Hub.

Using food systems to address children’s food insecurity.

Mapping Food Ladders

One of the questions that I frequently get from local food networks and local authorities is “how do we map what already exists in our community?”  Organisations also ask how what they do maps onto the food ladders approach.  These are questions that I have been exploring recently, as in theory it seems straight forward, but in practice it can be much more difficult.  To this end I have developed a workshop on how to map food activity in communities onto the Food Ladders framework. It takes a blended learning approach, starting with self-directed online learning, followed by a group activity that involves discussing and agreeing how activity maps onto the ladders within individual organisations. There is also a form tool that can be adapted for collecting the relevant data needed for this mapping. While the examples in this workshop are third sector organisations, any form of activity can be mapped onto the ladders.

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