Why Geography Matters: Food Insecurity

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.

We use lecture capture at the university so that students can catch up or listen again to the content of our sessions. Here is my lecture for this week. https://echo360.org.uk/media/7d480e37-7966-4322-9321-559cc0a65afe/public

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.

Food Deserts. You and yours Radio 4 interview

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:

  1. What are food deserts?
  2. What impact do they have on communities?
  3. We don’t cook at home, is this the problem?
  4. 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:

Millions are hungry in the UK, Here is where they are.

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.

Click here to go directly to the map.

Click here to view the methodology briefing document.

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.

Contacts

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 office@foodfoundation.org.uk.

Data File

An excel file of the estimates is available upon request. 

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.

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.