Food for thought: FSA seminar about the food ladders.

I was invited to give a talk about food security and the food ladders framework to the FSA recently. The seminar was recorded.

The current state of food insecurity in the UK and why we should stop asking and what can people do?

I was invited to participate in yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 show Money Box Live. The show included people struggling to make ends meet and worried about what the autumn and winter will bring as the cost of living increases. Front-line service providers talked about what they see on the ground. It was an interesting show with a strong reminder of the struggle that people face. The guests told their stories with dignity, truth and openness. These stories are not, sadly, unique. I have heard them before. We are a wealthy country, yet this is where we are.

This is in a context that is illustrative of our current situation. Dad’s House, which is one of the interviews, is a bit worried about how they will meet the increased demand and continue to provide the great range of community support that is so needed. On the other hand, today’s news reported that the owner of British Gas, one of if not the UK’s major household energy providers, posted billions of profits and are paying dividends to shareholders. One of the interviewees told us, with clear anxiety, how difficult he was finding it to feed his family and how his energy bills have exploded in the recent months and are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter. This is appalling.

The interviewer, like so many do, asked me at the end, “What can people in this situation do?” I knew she was going to ask this question. I was encouraged not to be ‘political’ and just provide advice that households might be able to utilise. I understand where this comes from. There is a clear desire to be helpful and to give people encouragement.

And there are practical things individuals can do. My advice is: Ask your neighbours if they have any tips for how to manage. If you are part of a food club, ask others who are part of that. Share what you do with them. In my research experience, the people living at the sharp end have developed brilliant budgeting strategies and crisis management skills that are effective within the constraints imposed by the wider context and where they live. They know what it is like and have the answers. We should listen to them as they are the experts.

These strategies will help with the stretching, but people and money can only stretch so far. There is only so much elasticity. If the gap is too wide, the money won’t reach and the people will break. This is happening now. I fear for the winter.

When discussing wider contextual changes or ways to intersect with opportunities, that is where academics, service providers and industry experts can provide advice. Martin Lewis is an excellent example. Some of what he says will be relevant, and some won’t. Just take from his toolbox and tell your friends.

The point of this blog post really is to interrogate that question just a little bit more.

This question always makes me uncomfortable because I see it as individualizing what is now largely a social-political-economic problem. It somehow implies that people should be doing more to make their money stretch in this time of a cost of living crisis.

What I want to say in response to this question is:

Push back. Write to your government representative. Join a union if you can. Support the unions if you can’t. Organise one if your sector does not have one. This collective engagement is the opposite of individualization. If we collectively demand better wages and better working conditions, our lives will improve because that will become normal. If we stay quiet or divide ourselves, things will only get worse. Don’t believe the hype. Trickle-down does not ever work and failure is more common than success in business. Very few are actually, truly self-made. Believing you will be the one to succeed where others have failed is highly unlikely. Good on you if that happens, but in a socially just society, it should happen anyway if you have aspiration and drive, regardless of what wages are being paid. So why not live a better life along with your neighbours than suffer on your own? There are clear examples of people achieving individual success in places where the safety net works as it should and where wages and services are sufficient (see for example Sweden).

Individualisation is a neoliberal tactic and, as such, is just as ‘political’ as statements about collectivization. But individualization has become normalised and is perceived as a-political. It is absolutely not. Individualisation is also harmful. It breaks people down and isolates them. It makes them vulnerable to crisis. It creates division and then imposes hierarchies that stigmatise and cause shame. This settles into people. It makes them physically ill and contributes to a further cycle of food insecuirty.

Collective action, mutual support, and community are not the same as state control of everything. It is not communism as far-right cheerleaders would have us believe when they tell us we must sacrifice for the ‘common good’. There is no freedom in hunger.

I always find it ironic that those who dogmatically subscribe to neoliberalism make the arguments about sacrifice and common good. What they are saying is go it alone–survival of the fittest, where the fittest are those who have the most money. Most of whom were born into this wealth. I don’t see those who are advocating this stance making any meaningful sacrifice. Instead, they make more money while those who can bear it least carry all the risk and sacrifice (remember dividends while people starve).

Let us stop asking that question–what can people in those circumstances do? In the current context it is not appropriate. Let us instead ask what needs to change? How is the system creating the conditions of hardship and want? What can we collectively do about it? We are a wealthy country. We have the resources.

SusSEd Talk-Surplus super powers: The social value of suprlus food in community settings

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:

Food project that uses surplus food

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.

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.

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: