Food stalled

Eat all, sup all, pay nowt – it’s the Yorkshire creed but it’s hard to keep to in the county’s poorest quarters. Megan Blake, helps bring home the snap.

For several years I have been investigating foodscapes. Foodscapes are the contexts within which we source the food we eat. Components of a foodscape include what food is present as well as what is absent; how it is used and accessed; and how it is understood.My research has taken me to Edlington – a former mining town on the edges of Doncaster – where the housing estates at either end of it are among the 10% most economically-deprived areas of England. The high street has more shops with shuttered fronts than those that are trading.

I’m here to meet a group of six women aged between 26 and 67 to talk about their views and experiences on how they eat, living as they do, in a place that is not well served by retail and where people are struggling to make ends meet. More importantly, I am curious to know what they think would make things better.

When I enter the community centre there is much activity – a welcome contrast to the empty street outside. People are using the computers and free internet to access the benefits portal and document their job searches as they are required to do. Several women are there to volunteer with a children’s holiday activity that the centre provides.

Sam, who runs the community centre activities, explains why they do this: “At the minute the cost of living is increasing, and wages aren’t very high, so you don’t really tend to have a lifestyle or social life because you’re that focused on accessing the food that you need to survive.” These are people who do not go on holiday and rarely buy new clothes.

The women I’m meeting tell me that they can get what they need, but not what they want.

They unanimously agree they want a way to be able to buy good quality fruit and vegetables in their village at an affordable price.
They tell me about the market where at one time you could buy low-cost fruits and vegetables and meat. They say the market closed when the supermarket came to town. Vegetables available at the supermarket are, they say, not good quality and expensive.

Strawberries cost £2.50 – out of the question on a weekly food budget of £20. They tell me that if you want a treat you get a packet of chocolate biscuits that costs a pound because it lasts longer and costs less.

They also talked about the lack of deals and branded food in the supermarket. They know they are spending more because of this. They say they trade down on nutritional quality and focus on basics that will fill everyone up and that everyone will eat. They are very cautious about trying new things, because their family might not like it and that would be a waste. They feel pride in their ability to be thrifty, but it also means that there are children here who have never eaten a grape.

Research sponsored by the Food Foundation reports that the price of food in the national nutritional guidelines (encompassed in the Eatwell guide) is well beyond the reach of the poorest UK families. To put this into wider context those households in the UK that cannot afford a healthy diet include 3.7 million children.

“Strawberries cost £2.50 – out of the question on a weekly food budget of £20.”

It is not just price and availability that makes it hard to eat healthy food. Many women in Edlington are dependent on friends with cars to take them to the bigger shops a few miles away. Those who do not have car-owning friends describe spending their mornings going to the Netto, the OneStop, the small Asda, and the local butcher to find deals that can be made into meals. All say the bus is impractical because they can only carry so much and the fare wipes out any savings or makes it more expensive. They are stressed by the struggle and time it takes to provide good food to their families within the context of poverty and being trapped by limited options in their community.

So how do we turn this around? How do we build healthier foodscapes that include fruits and vegetables for those living on a low income? How do we reshape the relationships those people have with food so that it is sociable, pleasurable and diverse?

There are many innovative ways in which to address these issues, but I will focus on one. For the past year and a half, I have been the co-investigator on a Medical Research Council-funded project called Fresh Street, with Clare Relton (Queen Mary University) and colleagues in the University of Sheffield School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

The aim of this project is to consider how we might normalise the consumption of fruits and vegetables in communities where affordability and access is very limited and to do so in a way that does not add to the stigma of being poor. The long-term aim is to improve public health and create a cultural change that supports the availability of fruits and vegetables in places like Edlington.

Every week for a year we distributed £5-worth of fruit and vegetable vouchers in two communities in Sheffield and Barnsley. Vouchers were accompanied by a short newsletter about the scheme and included a recipe based around seasonal fruit and vegetables, for example vegetable soups or curries. The only requirement for participation was to live in the area chosen.

In Fresh Street, Barnsley, vouchers could be spent at a local fruit and vegetable shop or at the market in the city centre, which is about three miles away from Barnsley or a 15-minute bus ride. Most participants redeemed their vouchers in the local fruit and vegetable shop, saying it was convenient. About one quarter used their vouchers at the city market, using this trip as a way to meet with neighbours and have an outing.

In Sheffield, to overcome the absence of a local shop, we offered residents the choice of receiving a locally-sourced delivery of vegetables or the option of using the vouchers in the Sheffield City Moor Market. The distance from their homes to the market is comparable to the distance in Barnsley. Only a few people opted for the vegetable delivery.

Uptake of the vouchers (about 80% of households redeeming 88% of the vouchers) demonstrated it was a socially acceptable intervention. The majority of recipients reported an increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables they bought and ate. Many identified significant changes to their diets that they saw as permanent.

One woman in her sixties told us that she lost 2.5 stones and she has no intention of returning to her old diet. Many residents indicated that they were cooking more than they did before and that the weekly vegetable-based recipes played a big part in this. One man in his thirties said he previously ate mainly convenience and take-away food, but was eating less of these kinds of meals now. Others said the vouchers enabled them to risk trying new foods, for example, parsnips, which they would continue to eat. Parents talked about providing fruit for their children as snacks rather than crisps and biscuits and said that once the vouchers finished they would continue to do so.

“Many identified significant changes to their diets that they saw as permanent.”

Market traders and the local shop owner welcomed the increase in customers and spending as a result of the voucher scheme. It not only gave them steady sales, but also many families were spending more on top of the vouchers.

In Sheffield and Barnsley, people who used the vouchers in the markets said they were using their trip as an opportunity to purchase from the other food stalls as well. Several residents remarked that the markets were new to them. They were pleased by the better quality and cheaper food they could get there and they would continue to shop there.

It is clear that Fresh Street project has enabled change around food in the communities where it was deployed and has the potential to reshape demand and eventually the foodscape.

 If you are interested in supporting the next stage of the Fresh Street research to see what long-term effects can be achieved in a locality, please contact Megan Blake (m.blake@sheffield.ac.uk) or Clare Relton (c.relton@qmul.ac.uk).

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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