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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