Food insecurity grows when the sense of community is low. Megan Blake tells how people have stepped up to the challenge.
 
Kora and Ryan are just starting out on their life together. She is a bartender and last summer he started his own hair salon. Then Covid-19 hit. Her wages dropped to 80%. Ryan’s income disappeared. He joined the other 3.2 million who applied for the UK’s welfare system, Universal Credit. Like nearly 1.3 million others, they also asked for an advance payment to get themselves through the system’s five-week gap before the first payment. When the first payment arrived, and the repayment was deducted, what remained was not enough.
 

Today Kora and Ryan are effectively homeless; moving around, living with one set of parents, then the other, then friends. Despite their financial circumstances they have not gone hungry. They are confident that they will be able to pick up the pieces.

These are people who have not needed to rely on the state. Or charity. They have friends and family and strong social networks that took them in and can support them. Many people do not.

“During April 2020, The Trussell Trust network of foodbanks reported an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels.”

During April 2020, The Trussell Trust network of food banks reported an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels compared to April 2019. If we are to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19, we must not only focus on repairing the economy. We must also focus on repairing communities.

Economic hardship and social isolation are the main causes of food insecurity, rather than health vulnerability (see Figure 1). When lock-down started, local authorities across the country immediately became concerned about those who would struggle to access food. Many realised this struggle could arise from underlying health vulnerabilities, insufficient income or both. Councils did not know what the overlap would be, so many just focused on getting free food to people in either category. It turns out the overlap is about one in every four. Three-quarters of those who are not going out because of health issues can afford food. Their primary barrier to food is access. Every household that is struggling financially needs food support, although not necessarily free food.

Figure 1 – Food insecurity under Covid-19

Research tells us that when their budgets are squeezed, people buy food of lower quality and narrow their diets. Fresh fruit and vegetables are particularly risky as they go off quickly and when budgets are tight, wasting food is not an option. When neighbourhoods are in the same situation, local area shops stop selling this food because demand is low. Where one generation may have known what grapes or parsnips are, their children have no idea. The UK spends £16 bn a year on diet-related ill health. This could be reduced if we helped people to be able to access healthy food.

The effects of poverty extend to more than just poor nutrition. Sam, who runs Edlington Community Organisation (ECO) in Doncaster put it this way: “If you don’t have money to eat, you don’t have money to socialise.” Lack of opportunities to socialise lead to increased isolation and loneliness. A place where people lack connections also lacks community resilience. When there is a crisis, as we have seen with Covid-19, community members are unable to support each other and must then rely on the state or outside support to survive that crisis. Where community resilience is strong, people in the community are less vulnerable to shocks.

Councils are now looking at how to go forward as national government further devolves recovery to local areas. Manchester is adopting a Food Ladders framework. Advocates of the scheme describe Food Ladders as “community-scale interventions aimed at building resilience in the face of food insecurity.” The approach was developed for low-income communities to address the wider effects that poverty has on health, wellbeing, and community cohesion. Ultimately, Food Ladders aim to enable communities to transform through self-organised community activity that meets local objectives.

Where one generation may have known what grapes or parsnipsare, their children have no idea.”

For those who can afford food, they are being referred to local resilience networks that will help them collect it. Because these resilience networks mobilise people who live in the same community, people who are isolated are meeting their neighbours.

Those who are struggling financially are directed toward food support that fits their situation. If they have no money and need emergency support, this is made available immediately. Those not in an emergency situation are directed toward responses that help them to stretch their budgets as well as other services and community activity. This includes access to membership schemes that draw on surplus food donated by food manufacturers and distributors.

One scheme operating in Greater Manchester is The Bread and Butter Thing (TBBT). TBBT receives surplus food from the food industry that might otherwise go to waste. It partners with community organisations which recruit local volunteers to help package the food into bags for each household. For £7 households receive between £25-30 worth of groceries, which includes fresh fruit and vegetables. There are more than 8,000 households across Greater Manchester who are members.

Figure 2 – TBBT diet diversity and the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption

Users of TBBT say membership introduces them to unfamiliar foods, improves their confidence to try new foods, and increases their access to fruit and vegetables  (see Figure 2). They also say that being able to have a healthier diet reduces the stress they feel around meal times and increases their enjoyment of food. Members also report that they have made new friends, got to know their neighbours and feel less alone as a result of accessing the food bags each week. In addition, the number of volunteer helpers has increased and people who require additional services are finding them through the community centres (see Figure 3).

National policy is a key determinant of the size and depth of the hole that individuals, households, and communities must climb out of.”

It is not just local authorities that are adopting the Food Ladders approach to “build back better”. A number of national charities including FareShare, The British Red Cross, Trussell Trust, Business in the Community and others, have joined together to develop an action plan for how to address problems of food access and affordability over the next eighteen months. This planning is structured using the Food Ladders framing.

Figure 3 – Stronger communities as a result of the TBBT food service

While Food Ladders involves local intervention, this does not mean that national scale responses are not also needed. National policy is a key determinant of the size and depth of the hole that individuals, households, and communities must climb out of to be more secure, have better health outcomes and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. National policy changes that reduce population-level vulnerabilities also reduce the need for emergency interventions and free up resources for capacity building and transformation.

Megan Blake

Megan is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. She has more than 25 years of experience conducting primary research and analysis on social innovation, community …

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