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:

How some food businesses in Sheffield coped and adapted during the March-May COVID lockdown

In the spring and summer of 2020 I interviewed some of Sheffield’s local food businesses to see how they coped in lockdown. What I found was agility and inventiveness and collaboration, but also care for the food that is provided, for the people who eat that food, and for the local place. What is clear from these interviews, when taken together, is that in emergency situations we need a local supply chain with people working in the food sector that are embedded in the community if we are going to strengthen and build resilience.

In this post I share the video interviews with Our Cow Molly, a local dairy producer, Food Works a social enterprise that works with surplus food, and Regather Coop.

Interview with Ed at Our Cow Molly

You can find all three video interviews on the University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food here.

Elaborating Food Ladders

In this post I provide an elaboration of the Food Ladders framework. This elaboration provides greater detail in terms of how to identify activity and where it sits on the the ladders. There are three ladders in the Food Ladders approach: 1. Food access and nutritional value, 2. Social, and 3. Economic.

House of Bread and Cafe 43: Making the invisible, visible.

I am currently doing some work around loneliness and isolation and how food projects are supporting people. This work is in collaboration with Lucy Antol (Feedback, Alechemic Kitchen, @Grabyourspoon), FareShare and the British Red Cross.  Lucy recently visited House of Bread in Stafford. Learn more about House of Bread here. Continue reading