YorkTalks 2020: Exposing the hidden consequences of food insecurity

OK, thank you. And thank you very much for
coming today, particularly post-lunch. I hope I’ll do my
best to confront the post-lunch slump
[AUDIO UNAVAILABLE] although in a different vein. We are in the throes of a crisis
of food poverty in the United Kingdom. In the last year, The Trussell
Trust, the main provider of food banks in the UK,
distributed 1.6 million food parcels to people in need. That’s a 26-fold
increase on 2010. 9 million meals
are needed a month to alleviate hunger
in London alone. That’s 300,000 meals a day. But these shocking statistics
reflect only the tip of the iceberg of food
poverty in the UK. The Trussell Trust
represent only 2/3 of all food banks in the
UK, and they’re a minority of all food aid providers. Food poverty or
insecurity appears to be at unprecedented
levels in the UK. Why has food poverty grown at
such an unprecedented rate? And has government policy
made matters better or worse? As a society, have we
responded in the best way to food poverty? And do different people
or different groups experience and respond to food
poverty in different ways? Evidence-based research,
York’s strength, is key to really
understanding what’s going on. In my research, I sought to look
at experiences of food poverty outside of food banks. Between 2014 and 2017, I
used survey data, interviews, and workshops in Bradford to
investigate the extent of food poverty in the city
and to understand how people coped or didn’t cope. I found food poverty
to be highly related to poverty and low
income, but I also found that food poverty
varies by ethnic group. So white British women are more
likely to report food poverty and more likely to
go to food banks than Pakistani Muslim women. Pakistani Muslim
women in Bradford, like Sabira, who I spoke
to as part of my research, report lower food poverty and
describe supporting each other with food and finance in hard
times, which reduce the need to go to food banks. It was normal and common to
share food between households, which mitigated food poverty. The supportive family
and community networks in Bradford’s Pakistani
Muslim population appeared to be
stronger than that in the white British population. The prevailing ideology of
individual responsibility appeared to have infiltrated the
white working class in Bradford to a greater degree than it
had the Pakistani population. But I also found that
white British women also avoid food banks nine
times out of ten. And I talked to them
about their experience of going to food banks, and
they told me quite a bit of negative experiences. The process of collecting
food from the food bank was disempowering, and
the food they received didn’t alleviate
their food poverty. So instead of going to
food banks, the mums I talked to talked to
me about skipping meals so there was enough food
for their children to eat. My research in
Bradford was conducted between 2014 and 2017. And that was amid
cuts to local services but before the full impact
of austerity policies and certainly before the
full detrimental rollout of universal credit. My follow-on research in York
has revealed the full impact of welfare reforms
on food poverty and especially the impact
of universal credit. So this project
here was a project that was co-produced in York. We went into community,
and we engaged them to find out what
they really wanted and what they really needed. It was a very practical
approach and a way for research to have a tangible impact. We surveyed and did
workshops and interviews with residents of York,
particularly parents. And this research
revealed food poverty to be highly related
to low income. So in our survey, 64% of
people with yearly incomes of less than 16,000 pounds a
year reported food poverty. And it also showed
the terrible impact of welfare reform,
especially universal credit. The five-week wait for payments
built into universal credit pushed people to food
poverty and into debt and forced them to
go to food banks. And again, like in
Bradford, a key finding was that food banks are
very much the last resort. So in our survey,
only 20% of people who reported food poverty
had ever used a food bank. Instead of visiting food banks,
people use intensive strategies to budget. They went to supermarkets, one
supermarket after the other to find the cheapest items. They bought only
reduced-cost items, and they budgeted
on weekly, monthly, and even yearly basis to
make their funds stretch so they could buy
everything they need amidst their other costs. And the respondents relied on
family and community support, which is really important, and
visited community food aid, not food banks. So they went to community
cafes and holiday hunger camps. These were open-access, they
had better quality food, and they were often more
welcoming than food banks. So what I discovered
in Bradford and York was that food
poverty is happening against a pervasive backdrop
of a culture that celebrates individual responsibility
summed up by the phrase “pull yourself up
by your bootstraps” over ideas of mutual aid or
any kind of collective good. The dominant response
to food poverty today has either been to demonise its
victims, stigmatising people in poverty and dividing the
deserving from the undeserving poor, or the approach
has been to set up a networked transactional
system based around food banks for the deserving poor. It’s worth
remembering that there have been community
responses to food poverty or maybe just poverty
and hunger for centuries. What the present
system does, however, is to formalise food aid,
adding in bureaucracy, systems of control, and
private partnerships. I’m going to play a short
video clip from some research that we did in York
of a mum describing her experience of going to
a food bank and the food that she got. Oh, let me go back there, OK. This also didn’t
happen in rehearsal. It’s now my third
visit to a food bank. I was given some pasta. I was given some cut tomatoes. I was given some feta,
and I was basically given tomato puree and then
loads of beans and things. And I went home, and I cried. I cried and thought,
how am I going to feed my family on that? What are you going to do? So I just thought,
right, internet. I’ll have a look
on the internet. And so I scoured every recipe,
and we did meat or fresh veg. And I thought,
well, this is just– you know, it’s ludicrous. What am I going to do– The growth of food banks in
the UK has been dramatic. Before 2008, The Trussell Trust
operated 12 food banks a year. Today they oversee
400 food banks operating out of 1,200
food bank centres. Alongside Trussell
Trust food banks, [AUDIO OUT] around 800
independent food banks run by other organisations. So the rapid growth
of food banks distributing food to people in
need [AUDIO OUT] a good thing. It demonstrates the strength of
community commitment of helping others in hard times. But whether this growth is
something to be celebrated remains questionable. So Trussell Trust food banks
and some independent food banks distribute food in
a manner that can be controlling and stigmatising
for the person in food poverty. In the Trussell Trust
system you can only receive food from a food
bank if you have a voucher. And you get a voucher by
going to a local charity or local public service. So that might be your
child’s school, your GP, or Citizens Advice. And you go to them, and
you tell them [AUDIO OUT] pay to describe at quite an
extent your circumstances, maybe your family’s
circumstances. And they decide whether your
need is sufficient for you to get a food bank voucher. And then when you
go to the food bank, you’re asked to describe again
why you need the food bank voucher and describe
your circumstances. So this voucher system
creates a division between those deserving of food
support, the deserving poor, and those undeserving. It reinforces the
stigma of poverty and deprives people of
their right to privacy. At the food bank
people are given a defined parcel of
nutritionally adequate food or [AUDIO UNAVAILABLE]
appropriate. While some food
banks may provide limited choice in
addition to this parcel, this is not generally the case. And importantly,
underlying all this, the very existence and
expansion of food banks may allow for further
austerity and welfare reform. So by accepting responsibility
for individual destitution, what the food bank
does is relieve the state of its responsibility
to prevent destitution. So the Trussell Trust
operates in a franchise model. Food banks pay upfront
and a yearly fee to be part of the network. It is therefore in the financial
interest of the Trussell Trust to expand, placing any move away
from food banks in jeopardy. [AUDIO UNAVAILABLE] food banks
are already firmly in it. In 2008, a new partnership
worth $20 million pounds was announced between FareShare,
a food redistribution charity, the Trussell Trust, and ASDA
to expand food bank services in the UK. At the time, the partnership
received widespread criticism because of ASDA’s record
on low pay at the time and more recently, as the
workers have staged protests across the UK in
response to being forced to sign punitive
flexible contracts. In the run-up to
Christmas, Tesco hosted annual neighborhood
food collection in partnership with FareShare and
the Trussell Trust while Sainsbury’s embarked
on its help brighten a million Christmases
[AUDIO UNAVAILABLE] for others with a target
of one million donation in Sainsbury’s and Argos stores. So this approach is not
restricted to Tesco, ASDA, and Sainsbury’s. While they may be big players in
this type of charitable giving, all the other
retailers are involved. It’s a win-win
approach, isn’t it? So supermarkets distribute
surplus or waste food to charities, the
food charities gain much-needed additional
food, and the supermarkets enhance their reputation
and avoid landfill costs. It’s great. But Britain’s supermarkets are
profiting from food poverty. So is surplus food the
solution to food poverty? No, food poverty and food
waste are two separate symptoms of a dysfunctional system. They are not the
solution to each other. Yes, some surplus
food may inevitably result from some overproduction
and from inefficiencies within the food system. But much surplus
food is a result of intentional overproduction. Supermarkets seek to create
an image of abundance to make us buy more. And this UK model
of food charity is increasingly following
the American system, where food banks have been
part of the welfare system since the 1960s. It’s corporate management
of food poverty, although the delivery is local. This is a flashy and
expansionist system. It normalises food
poverty and fails to address its root causes. This is a dangerous
route we are going down. But there is another way,
a community rather than a corporate response. Alongside Trussell Trust
and independent food banks exists an unknown number of
other community food providers, such as pay as you feel cafes,
community kitchens, community gardens. In my work in York, I found over
30 organisations providing food to people in need in the city. Only four were Trussell
Trust food banks. And many of these organisations
reject the bureaucratic model of the Trussell Trust. They’re grassroots initiatives
run by local people. They’re open-access. They’re sociable. People eat together. And they preserve
individual dignity often by having a payment system
just like any cafe, where people pay only what they can. These alternative
sociable types of food aid may be spaces of politicisation. People come together. They eat together. They talk. They collectively analyse
the cause of their problems. But the real solution
to food poverty isn’t food aid in any
form, and certainly not a growing food bank sector
backed by supermarkets offloading waste. It’s policy targeting the
root causes of poverty. My research of parents
in York and Bradford has questioned whether
food banks really are the solution to food poverty. Do they continue a system
that values economic activity at the expense of
everything else, a system which divides the
deserving from the undeserving poor, which stigmatises
people in poverty, labelling them as scroungers? Food banks are part
of the problem. They are not the solution. The policy response
to food poverty must focus on the
root causes of poverty and the reasons for
food bank queues. So this includes ending
the five-week wait for universal credit,
ending benefit sanctions, uprating benefits in
line with inflation, and ending chronic low wages. Fundamental policy
change not food banks is required to end
food poverty in the UK. I also want to thank those
I worked with on this and who’ve supported this work. And these are the image credits. [APPLAUSE]

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