Latest thinking on Food Insecurity from leading UK experts

A recent food basket comparison found a huge disparity in cost for the same twenty items of basic range food: At a large Tesco it totalled £16 pounds and seven miles away in a small village Tesco store the very same items were £38 pounds.  Research tells us access to affordable food along with availability, utilisation and stability are the four main issues that contribute to food insecurity for over one third of people in the UK, with over 17% of people experiencing either low or very low food security.  

At the Gather Movement Learning Community in January, university experts and senior leaders shared latest thinking on UK food insecurity showing vulnerability is not just economic, but health related and more likely if you have children or if you are from a minority ethnic group or if you are unemployed.   Research shows there is a downward spiral of food insecurity leading to poor diet and poor health which can be very hard to reverse.  

Worryingly, scholars reflect with surprise and distress that after 20 years of research on food insecurity this is still such a big problem in the UK, one of the richest countries in the world.  However, on a brighter note, Dr Dianna Smith at Southampton University remarked:

“what I do like is the coherence everyone is now bringing together, rather than just using food banks as the answer, we’re thinking much more carefully and thoughtfully about how we can respond to this meaningfully in a way that people want to engage with.”

There are very few food intervention studies with controlled trial experiments to help us see what works best. What we do know from research is that food pantries and social eating activities increase enjoyment from food, improve well-being, increase healthy eating and access to healthy foods, they increase community connections and have less stigma than the food banks do. 

So how should churches plan to respond to the food insecurity in our communities?  And do we need to think differently about food insecurity in 2023?   Dr Megan Blake at Sheffield University says:

“‘socially just’ food security enables all people in all places to have the food they need to live their very best life and does so without shame, stigma or stress…recognising the burdens food insecurity puts on people’s time as well as economically and physically”. 

[Dr Blake expands on this in the Gather Movement webinar -click here] 

A large debate continues around ‘cash first’ advocated for the most vulnerable, that they should be given cash rather than tins of food.   Dr Blake shared her view that:

“we should be catching people before they get to that point and in order to catch people we need services that enable them to stretch their budgets to build their health and so forth.  Cash doesn’t do that, cash doesn’t repair those mental health issues once people get into that very bad space they are in.” 

It is also recognised that ‘cash first’ does not reverse the downward spiral of poor diet and poor health or the bad relationships that people end up having with food.  Food isn’t just nutrients and calories it’s also the glue that helps us to have joyous experiences with other people and that’s as much a part of our healthful environment as having nutrients and calories.  Dr Blake advocates for funding being increased for programmes like HAF (Holiday activities and food) or providing free school meals which reaches a greater number of people and helps them to bridge the gap.  Cookery skills can help increase the ability to utilize food and improve self-confidence and enjoyment of food.  They can help build community cohesion and provide avenues of reciprocity but with all these three elements the framing of the intervention makes an enormous difference toward their acceptability and take up. 

“So if you go into a community saying ‘you don’t know how to cook -we’re going to teach you how to cook now’ it’s not going to gain a lot of traction,” says Dr Blake. 

Research suggests that a range of options that are responsive to a range of local needs and involve communities in their delivery are more acceptable and help repair the social individual and dietary causes and effects of food insecurity.  Dr Blake shared a compelling example from Doncaster, where a community organisation run a Breakfast Club with kids and the parents are invited too.  The Breakfast Club is not framed around ‘your children are not attending school’ or ‘your children are not getting breakfast’, instead it’s framed around ‘let us help each other to make sure the homework’s done, to have a warm breakfast for everyone and to finish up all that stuff that people need to do as they’re rushing off to go to school’.  People are cooking toast for each other, they’re braiding hair, some people are looking and checking over children’s homework and that’s a whole different kind of way of thinking about a breakfast club.  It’s engaging people, it’s incorporating them into the activity, it’s not stigmatizing, it’s not telling people what they should be doing but instead is mobilising those community resources.   The community has seen that school attendance and the ability of children to engage in school has increased because of this.

Danni Malone Director at Trussell Trust reflected that in the context of last year when they gave out 2.5 million emergency food parcels, with that expected to increase probably by 40% this year, how do we think in those scale terms to transition towards models that are going to be more long-term and really enable people to live life in all its fullness?  Reverend Ian Rutherford leading on Movement for Recovery in Greater Manchester agreed that the figures are scary and somehow we have to hold the numbers, the narratives and the networking in our minds.  We need to be getting resident surveys from organisations to really understand what’s happening and to be able to map any advances that we make.  The narratives are so important to hear the reality of things and to have the framing of the positive interventions discussed that provide those key elements of dignity, agency and power with an asset-based approach.  Having that sort of narrative running through the work that we do with food security is vital.  But it’s the networking that churches have to be involved with, church leaders have to see this as being across a range of models, across a range of structures of food provision, involving all of the sectors whether it be private food manufacturers, supermarkets, public, voluntary, faith, health, all have to be involved in this sort of mixed situation.  The idea that we as churches can consider resolving this is not tenable, it has to be done in some sort of cross-sector collaboration.  

To watch the full Gather Movement webinar “Latest thinking on Food Insecurity from leading UK experts” click here.

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