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We need to change the narrative on food poverty, Seb Mayfield

We need to change the narrative on food poverty

Posted on December 9, 2016

OK, I was wrong, and it took a fellowship to Canada in 2015 to realise it.

I have been involved in the food movement for a decade, specialising in building good food communities. I continue to see many benefits to putting good food at the heart of a community, including increases in social capital and benefits to mental and physical health.

I became increasingly aware of the increase in the number of people visiting food banks and I thought that the sorts of programmes I worked on could reduce this number. I then went to Canada thanks to a Winston Churchill fellowship.

One of the reasons I went to Canada, a country where food banks have existed for almost 30 years longer than in the UK, was to learn how emergency food aid providers in Canada have gone beyond basic food provision to reduce people’s food bills and dependency on the state.

What I actually found was that food aid providers were increasingly disassociating themselves from the message that they were reducing food poverty. They realised that while people need feeding they must also raise awareness of the need to advocate for wider systemic change as, ultimately, that is what’s required to have the necessary impact.

Measurement of food poverty had helped greatly in bringing this to the fore. Whereas the UK government continues to reject calls to undertake national measurement, Canada has been doing so for many years. As a result they understand very clearly that the situation has only got worse despite an increase in food aid, and research from the likes of Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto has provided evidence of the lack of impact that food aid provision has.

I’m not here to bash food banks though. People are hungry and hundreds of groups across the country, very often run by volunteers, are working tirelessly to feed them.

Instead, in my article I call for a need to change the narrative on food poverty and highlight the importance of all of us, including food aid providers, in getting behind this new narrative to prevent the further institutionalisation of food aid. I provide more evidence for why this new narrative is required, offer up suggestions for what we can all do to get behind this new narrative and highlight how in the UK we’re in danger of creating a segregated food system for the poor if we don’t take action now.

Download Seb's provocation piece here. Please share your views and comments below, or start a conversation with Seb on Twitter. 

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Good point Seb. It may be worth emphasising that food poverty is merely a symtpom of overall poverty. Helping people in poverty by providing food is little more than applying a sticking plaster to a deep cut. Through our foodbank in Maidenhead, I had not heard the narrative that we are helping to alleviate food poverty. I can confirm your view that it is nothing of the sort. The reason for providing food support is to help people in poverty avoid spiralling ever further towards hopelessness and despair, and in some cases starvation. Our foodbank, and many others I believe, are looking for ways we can help people in poverty to reintegrate to society. One way is to provide a physical place where they are not shamed and where they are able to meet others, another is to look for other ways to help people cope with the symptoms of poverty to allow those who have the capacity the opportunity to look for a solution. This is where the social supermarkets, and community cafes, come into play. Segregation of people in poverty has already taken place long before the social supermarkets.

> Posted by Nigel Cohen on 13 Dec 2016 at 09:27

Really thought provoking thanks Seb. Think food aid projects highlight how system is failing. When so many people desperate for help, clearly something not right. Agree good idea to avoid providing false reassurance that because of food aid, everythings is sorted and to always work for systemic change.

> Posted by Jane Bruce on 15 Dec 2016 at 16:56

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Seb Mayfield

Seb Mayfield

Community food security advisor

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