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.
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.
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.
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.