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.