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.

You are someone’s world: Neurodiversity

‘To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.’

Dr. Seuss

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. 

Some hints and tips that I have learned are available here: https://geofoodie.org/2019/04/09/dyslexic_academic/

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.

APPG Hearings on Loneliness and Isolation–Oral evidence

This August I was invited to provide oral evidence to an All Party Parliamentary Group hearing. The focus of the group is to address issues of loneliness and isolation, an issue that has become more pronounced during the COVID crisis.

The APPG’s independent inquiry seeks to:

  1. Hold government to account and secure a renewed cross-Government commitment to tackling loneliness and its underlying causes
  2. Build on progress made to date, by recommending tangible and ambitious next steps for government, at the end of the inquiry in December 202
  3. Explore solutions to crucial but complex policy areas identified by the Loneliness Action Group as outlined within the Shadow report, A connected Society? which assesses progress in tackling loneliness

I participated in the hearing on funding. My contribution starts at about minute 33.

Rhubarb Farm: Therapeutic Horticulture and the repair of talking to others.

I have been doing some case study work to see how surplus food is being used by community organisations.  One of these is Rhubarb farm.  Let me introduce you to them. Continue reading

What is Food Justice to you?

In 2014, just a few months after I returned to the U.K. from Hong Kong I wrote the following:

Continue reading