Food insecurity is not a competition.

I give a lot of talks and interviews about food security. Last week I gave 2; the week before, I gave one; and at the beginning of January, I gave another. I am grateful that people what to hear what I have to say and that it is, hopefully, helping in the fight to get people to listen to the issues that people are facing around food security.

Food insecurity exists in wealthy economies where there is enough food to feed everyone, but it is not available to everyone. Food insecurity is not just something that people somewhere else experience, be they in war-torn or poor countries or places where there has been a disaster. I am not trying to diminish the experience and trouble people in these “other” places face. Indeed, their trouble is awful.

But food insecurity is experienced in bellies and in minds and in bodies. It is personal. Food Security becomes geographical when multiple people from the same place are similarly impacted.

Saying that support should go to the “most needy” creates an insidious competition. To get help, you have to prove you fit into this category. Many people don’t see themselves that way–there are always others we can point to who are worse off. Many don’t want to participate in that competition because of the stigma of failure surrounding it–you win but lose simultaneously.

Some who provide help get worried that they are not reaching the “most needy” and create all sorts of barriers and demands for proof. The logic is that if we give this thing to you and someone needier comes along, we won’t have any for them. At the same time, there are worries about “foodbank tourism”, where people go from location to location to get help. They have “won” the race to the bottom and are using this success as a survival strategy. And then are stigmatised and denied because they have successfully proved their need. Note that success here is encouraged and created by those most worried that the “most needy” won’t get what they need. In the meantime, people don’t get the help they need. Some of whom may indeed be the neediest.

This competition is also something that involves judges and competitors. You cannot be both, but you can undoubtedly become one or the other if your circumstances change. But who are we to judge? Food insecurity is experienced individually.

So what do I propose? Let’s stop with the competition. Mutual support recognises that giving and receiving help is not a competition and that everyone can participate equally and in multiple roles.

If you are interested in hearing more. The talk I gve in early January to Gather Movement is here:

Talk about food scapes and food support

The talk I gave about my Food Ladders approach to the EU Joint Health Initiative: A healthy diet for a healthy life can be seen here:

Webinar for @JPI_HDHL

The interview was included in a BBC radio 4 broadcast as part of the Inside Health programme. The interview is available here:

The radio show is really well done. It highlights the advantages of pantries. The women interviewed highlight the stress and anxiety of food insecurity, but also the belief that projects are not for them. Pantries, and now some food banks, provide fruit and veg, bringing in additional support to help people move on from their food services. People are also introduced to new food. These women also demonstrate just how capable they are. These women are not failures. They have strategies and capabilities. They want to feed their families well and can do so.

The data I discuss–and more analysis–is provided in this report I wrote. You can download and read the report here. It also provides some further detail about different forms of support.

Doing Academic Impact: A metaphor

Research impact is increasingly recognised as a valuable academic output. For years, much of the focus has been on translating hard science research findings into commercial products, but that is not all that research impact can be. It is sometimes difficult for those in the social sciences and humanities to understand, however, what their research impact might be when it is not easily translated into a commercial product, or as in my case, the researcher is not interested in marketing what they have produced.

My joy as an academic comes from doing research that can be mobilised to make a difference for people. I do work on food (in)security in wealthy economic contexts. I tend to focus on the United Kingdom, where I live, but this also applies to countries like the United States. I work in and with community organisations, national and international charities, government and non-government bodies, and commercial food industry organisations.

In the United Kingdom, we have a periodic review of research that includes a measure of the impact derived from research outputs. This is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Units of assessment (UOAs, effectively departments) submit case studies to indicate the impact that research being conducted by academics within those units is having beyond the academy. The most recent REF period extended from 2014-2021. REF impact case studies account for about 25% of the total research score that a UOA achieves, with the remaining focusing on publications and a narrative of the research environment (see more about the REF here).

While the number of case studies submitted is relatively small from each UOA, this is not a full measure of what actually happens. As someone who supports other members of staff to consider the impact that their research is having, I can attest to the fact that what becomes a case study is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the change that research can, and does, have.

My research was submitted as an impact case study in the REF2021. It focused on the change that my work on food security has had as I’ve tried to translate what communities are doing into a framework that enables people to “see” and then build landscapes of food support to enable people to have the food they need to live a good life free of stigma, shame, and poor health. You can read the case study here.

Many academics who are motivated by making change with their research may not want to participate in the processes associated with REF impact case studies. Producing a case study is difficult. There is a lot of work involved in writing and rewriting the narrative. You have to ask people to write testimonial letters that say how your work has helped them to make change. It is often hard to attribute what your research findings have contributed. Sometimes you don’t even know about change that has happened. It is also difficult to understand impact in REF terms, as many academics engage with research partners, explaining what they know, which may or many not be directly derived from the research they have conducted. We tell non-academics about work that others have done, or we interpret other people’s research and offer opinions about this work as it may relate to our own expertise. Filtering out what we do from what our research has done is difficult. It took me several years of working on a research case study to understand what was needed for the narrative. It is hard to take yourself–what you do–out of the picture. This doing that we do can make real change and is important, but it is not REF impact in and of itself.

The key with REF impact case studies is that they are based on what the researcher’s research findings have enabled. It always comes back to the research itself. Research findings can be methods and tools, theories, frameworks, constructs, etc. I use the following metaphor to describe what REF impact is. Keeping this in mind helps when trying to write a case study narrative.

Imagine REF impact activity as a picnic. With each interaction with impact partners–the people you want to use your research to make change–you bring along your picnic basket. Going to the picnic is not the impact. What is the impact is the difference that derrives from what you bring in your picnic basket. The basket represents your research findings in the form of publications, presentations, reports, frameworks, methodological tools that you have developed, etc. Ask yourself, what difference did my bringing along my picnic basket make to others who attended that picnic. Did you expose them to something they had never eaten before? Did you filll a hunger that they had? Were they able to eat something they brought with them because of the tools your brought with you or did you enhance the food they brought with the sauces and seasonings that you brought with you. If you had not brought your basket, what would have happened? Would people not talk to each other or share their food or would they have gone home hungry or maybe not come at all? Then ask yourself. Why does that difference matter? Was it a one-off nice event or because of that picnic and your basket new and other ways of being and belonging are enabled. More picnics are happening. New people/groups are able to join in that may have been left out. Its this extra and exteded change that matters. Not the one-offs. Showing up is not enough, you have to bring your basket with you and that basked needs to provide something that would not have been provided if you had not brought it.

Tracking that change can be really difficult. It helps if you have a specific item in that basket that people refer to in relation to you–going back to the picnic basket–perhaps you have a really great recepie for cheesecake that you always bring along. People show up at the picnics because they know that you will bring this cheesecake. They ask you for the recipe and then make it for their friends at their own picnics. The cheesecake, although being used by others, comes to be named as your cheesecake. Parties happen. People are happy and your cheesecake has enabled that. If people tweet about thier parties with your cheesecake on show, this can be evidence of the influence that your basket has made. If you can get quotes from people saying that your cheesecake is the best that they have ever had and they serve it at family events then this is also evidence.

While picnics and cheesecake may seem trite and insignificant, I find thinking about narrating impact in this way helps me to understand what evidence I need to demonstrate the change that my research is having. It shifts the lens from what I did–made a cheesecake, packed it in my basket and showed up, to the difference that the basket and its contents has made. This is what REF impact is about. You have to show up. You have to bring your basket and your basket needs to have things that you made in it. And it has to have some longer term effect on those who were also there.

Presentation for Gather Movement on Food Security and Asset-Based Approaches

Presentation to Gether Movement

In early January, I gave a talk to Gather Movement about food security in the UK and how to embed asset-based approaches into food support for communities. Asset-based approaches (or Asset Based Community Development–ABCD) focus on and develop the resources (or assets) that are already within a community before going out to secure additional resources that might be needed to achieve outcomes desired by the community.

Gather Movement is a collection of charities and churches aiming to achieve transformation in thier communities.

After the presentation, there were reflections from food security experts, including Dr Dianna Smith from Southampton University and Danni Malone from the Trussell Trust.

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 “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.