Our first blog from Seb Mayfield, the new Network & Projects Coordinator for Good Food Oxford.

For the last 11 years I have dedicated myself to working towards a more sustainable food system in the UK, with a passion for working with communities to enable change at local and regional levels.

So I thought I’d dive right in and make my first blog about the problem with the idea that food aid can ultimately solve food poverty.

Food poverty is one facet of poverty which is a result of inadequate income. This is often caused by low wages, precarious work and an inefficient benefits system. Providing free or subsidised food isn’t going to remedy this situation.

Yes, people need food and yes, they should be able to access nutritious food in the most dignified way possible. There are many programmes doing wonderful things to make sure this happens.

But we have to acknowledge that rather than solving the issue of food poverty, they are solving short-term food shortages caused by financial crises.

Financial shocks can and do lead to many households falling into some degree of food poverty. Taking the view that food aid is a satisfactory way of dealing with this only helps it to become further institutionalised in the UK. It has been argued by some, including the Independent Food Aid Network (I should declare I am a co-founder), that this is exemplified by the recent announcement that Asda will be providing £20 million of investment for FareShare and the Trussell Trust, whilst not committing to paying their workers a living wage.

Investment on this scale needs to be coupled with a commitment to a fairer and better working system for employees, and fairer contracts with suppliers.

I’ve been involved in the food movement for over a decade and I do this work because I know how growing, cooking and eating good food positively impacts on people’s mental and physical health and motivates people to take action in other areas of life, including civic engagement. Getting involved in such activities provides so many benefits that have been well-documented by a variety of experts and organisations, including by Good Food Oxford and its members.

However, experience over the last few years has shown me that it’s unhelpful to claim that this sort of work is directly impacting on the root causes of food poverty.

People’s Knowledge, a research project at Coventry University, believes that we need to be careful with the message being communicated: ‘…Mainstream institutions, politicians, professionals and activists often perpetuate a range of “food myths” …These food myths shift attention away from structural political problems towards blaming individuals for food-related problems like food poverty. These myths also encourage people to think about short term band-aid solutions by encouraging individual behavioural change and food charity rather than confronting structural political and cultural issues that are at the root of food-related injustices.’’

This is supported by PROOF Canada’s research that adult food skills and use of gardens are not associated with food insecurity. Everybody needs to learn how to grow, cook and eat healthy and sustainable food, not just people who are experiencing food poverty.

When I talked to Professor Valerie Tarasuk, Principle Director of PROOF, she explained that while there are many other benefits to these types of programmes, including increases in social capital and benefits to mental and physical health, there needs to be an appreciation that the only long-term things that are going to have an impact on levels of food poverty are higher wages, increased work opportunities and an improved benefits system.

A briefing for the Food Research Collaboration makes a similar point about using surplus food to feed people who are hungry.

So, what does this mean for civic society engaged in food aid? Should everyone working extremely hard, often voluntarily, to feed people in their communities just pack up and go home, hoping that one day the necessary policy changes will happen? The short answer is ‘no’.

People need food and they need it right now. However, whilst feeding people let’s do as much as we can to highlight the reasons why we are having to do this and raise awareness of the wider issues.

Any organisation feeding people in their communities, however they choose to do this, can work to raise awareness of the issues faced by the people they serve and highlight the need for upstream solutions. Getting involved in national campaigns like End Hunger UK is one way of doing this.

At Good Food Oxford our work on food poverty this year will include a focus on maximising family income with funding from Food Power. This project acknowledges that low income is the major cause of food poverty. In a city like Oxford, in-work poverty is a serious issue and the Oxford Living Wage could significantly contribute to changing this, so we are delighted to support the campaign.

I am really pleased to be taking on the role of Network & Projects Coordinator for Good Food Oxford. I believe strongly that local alliances are a vital part of the solution to how to create a more sustainable and just food system, and I look forward to working with GFO network members and partners to make this work a success over the coming months.

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One Response to Whilst feeding people let’s do as much as we can to highlight the reasons why

  1. Deborah says:

    I agree with your line of argument here. Food poverty is just poverty, and it’s poverty we need to address. I would say we need to go beyond highlighting underlying causes of poverty and promoting particular policy options or gathering data to illustrate the issues or to support new policies – we need to campaign on politics and frankly party politics. In the UK, we no longer have a two party choice of ‘they’re all the same’ – we have a Labour Party that is committed to fighting inequality and bringing about social as well as environmental justice. In this context, I feel it’s simply weak if people working and researching in food poverty do not explicity state that we will never achieve justice under the current Tory government. We can gather data and argue for policies until the cows come home and this government will not enact any form of justice. We need systemic change, and the only realistic chance of achieving that is with a Labour government (under the current leadership, obviously). And therein lies the rub. Because most of us are working in social enterprises and charitable organisations and we are explicitly prevented from political and certainly party political campaigning – even when we know that this is the advocacy that our mission requires. I listened to Donald Hirsch at the KCL conference, and he was the only person who came near to making a political comment. When he was talking about minimum income standards, there was a question from the floor about whether the government would listen to this persuasive data. He allowed himself a little smile and said ‘Not this government’. And that’s the point – not this government. The rest of it is fine sounding verbiage unless we work together to get rid of this government.

    I organise an intercepted food club that provides food to club members. I’m in that category where I hear myself being talked down to by academic researchers who think I don’t understand and I’m not adopting a radical and fundamental analysis. I can’t tell you how misplaced and infuriating that is. Obviously surplus food isn’t the answer to food poverty. Obviously, the food system is utterly deranged – but does anyone seriously think we’re going to change that anytime soon? This is capitalism; it’s the end-stages of neoliberal capitalism, and it’s not going to die easily. They are not going to stop over-producing until there is a fundamental shift that is broadly endorsed in our society. They are not going to stop over-producing until the concept of exploitation is disgraced in our value system. These are utterly separate issues – I agree with you. Surplus food and impoverished people are entirely separate issues – but they come from the same root. We need to attack the root. It seems to me that the researchers are telling me to attack branches and leaves whilst accusing me of spraying insecticide.

    And, an additional point, I do feel that there is something qualitatively different about the food club model we operate. Our food club operated tonight (it’s a weekly pop-up) and members went home with two big bursting bags of food, at least half of which was fruit and veg, plus cereal, tea bags, cake, pastries, larder staples, steak, pork pies, packets of ham, slabs of cheese, chicken, yoghurt, fresh fruit juice – this is not low-grade, trashy food. This food would more or less keep a small family going for a week, until next week when they come back. We don’t means test in our club, we have no membership requirements, and we don’t take referrals – but our members hear about us from the jobcentre, from CAB, from NHS wellbeing workers, and from word of mouth. We have a mixed membership model – and this is acceptable to FareShare. Most of our members are people in work, but with a low/insecure income. Some are out of work, sick or unemployed. And some are fine financially – and that makes a big difference. People come to food club because it’s brilliant, not because they’re desperate. There is no stigma here. We run as a cooperative and members become volunteers – everyone is encouraged to have a go. Tonight, I asked for people’s stories to add to the End Hunger Universal Credit campaign, and people had plenty to say. Not everyone there is poor or receiving universal credit, but for those who aren’t, it’s an education. There is solidarity there, and I feel this is a tiny, tiny part of rebuilding society when we’ve killed this neoliberal monster; not nice people helping ‘the needy’, that’s the old model – we need cooperative models of people working together to common advantage, understanding each other’s stories. This club model is far from utopian. We’re not dealing with the fundamental issue and none of us are under any illusions about that. And there is too much tiring work and none of this should be unpaid. But this is where we are right now, and we have to rebuild our society, and policy arguments aren’t enough. Even when we’ve won – even when we’ve got a new government and we’re enacting our policies, we’re going to have to rebuild from the ground up, by bringing people together – and not just the happy middle classes, growing their veg in community plots and enjoying their communal meals. Until we solve food over-production (for which read until we defeat neoliberal capitalism) I think there’s a possibility that remodelled, cooperative forms of food ‘shopping’ might play a part – especially if it encourages people to think they’ll eat what there is – no strawberries in December, no buying of special recipe ingredients – I’ll just make something from what I’ve got.

    Sorry if this comes across as a bit of a rant. Fundamentally, I agree with what you’re saying.

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