Gabriel Scally chairs Liz Dowler, Bill Gray, Rosie Boycott & Adrian Curtis talking about food poverty

Here’s a summary of what I heard in the discussion on food poverty which opened the Sustainable Food Cities conference #sfcconf in Bristol on Monday. It began with Professor Scally asking each panelist for their definition of what food poverty is.

Adrian Curtiss, Trussell Trust National Food Bank Manager: Many of the 913K people who came to a Trussell Trust food bank last year had a sudden crisis in their lives; e.g. benefit sanctions or losing a job, when their livelihood suddenly comes ‘unstuck’.

If someone is already living on a low budget, a sudden change in circumstances makes it more likely they will be facing a crisis. These circumstances are different from those who have longer term issues of just not having the money to be able to afford enough nutritious food at any time.

Bill Gray from NHS Scotland talked about the uncertainty people on low budgets live with continually compared with people who have food available at all times. He stressed the importance of people living in dignity and without fear or worry.

Rosie Boycott chair of the London Food Board asked the question Is any food better than no food? telling us this was the question Boris had asked of her, with the correlation between obesity and deprivation in mind. We need, she said, to look at food poverty holistically and, although foodbanks are part of our landscape now, what’s need is affordable nutritious food for everyone.

Liz Dowler, who took part in the Birmingham 2050 Scenarios Projectis Professor of Sociology at Warwick University. She began by saying that talking about hunger is misleading, reminding us too that food is about hospitality as well as nutrition.

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; what we’re talking about is ‘systematic impoverishment’. Moreover, the country has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world.

And that there is a long history of blaming people for the situation in which they find themselves. It’s not, she insisted, a matter of teaching people to cook or to budget better. People are in the situation they’re in simply because they lack money — and that’s part of the system in which they’re living.

It’s no good, she continued, to face the crisis without looking at the drivers behind it.

In the US, people have an entitlement to food standards and if they can’t meet them, their diet is topped up by ‘food pantries’. There are dangers in using the word ‘hunger’; it normalises a situation that shouldn’t be here.

Professor Scally then opened up the discussion to the floor.

Caroline Wolhuter, one of our Directors, also Head of Social Inclusion at the Ashram Housing Association made the point that food poverty among children spikes during the holidays and that children inevitably have far fewer resources to deal with being hungry. She asked the panel to respond.

Adrian Curtis confirmed Caroline’s experience. The Trussell Trust sees a 30% increase in demand for their food banks. They were looking ‘upstream’ for the causes.

Rosie Boycott said London was working with Greggs and others to provide breakfast. She added that  malnourished children have poorer school performance, which perhaps indicated need in the longer term for social enterprises to provide out of school meals for children.

Bill Gray made the pertinent point that providing meals for children mustn’t stigmatise them. What they’ve done in Glasgow is put on a variety of activities which just happen to have food there too.

Lucy Antal from Sustainable Food Cities, Liverpool talked of Holiday Kitchen and meals at playscheme activities — and said we need many more ideas of this kind.

Nessie Reid, the coordinator of This is rubbish raised the issues of food poverty and food waste. This drew a likely discussion from the panel, begining with . . .

Liz Dowler who was emphatic that there was no connection. It is, she said, an idea put forward by big companies. Food waste, she continued, exists because food isn’t valued.

Adrian Curtis asked the question why should poor people in crisis be recipients of food waste? The Trussell Trust refused donations of this kind right at the outset.

Gabriel Scally even joined in the conversation, saying that he ‘loathed “charity”‘, as it ‘downgrades neighbourliness’.

Sustain’s Ben Reynolds mentioned ‘key local statutory responsibilities’, asking what they were and how they were highlighted.

Emily O’Brien, the Project Manager at the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership said everyone was skirting around the elephant in the room, pootling around the issue. This presents a dilemma, describing a round table discussion of the great and the good in their city which developed an Action Plan — but it was eveident that if they broadened the issues of food poverty to include upstream issues, they were dealing with poverty. They are an organisation with food at the centre of what they do; how far should they engage with dealing with the root causes which are to do with poverty and its social and political causes?

Another point was made from someone whose name I didn’t catch: It was on the issue of fresh food donations from farms, from their surpluses. She said that it was proving impossible now to have them.

Hilary Hamer from Food4Hull made the point that many schools lay empty during holidays, three months of the year, and that this was a resource that could be used.

note: Featured image from a tweet by Hilary Harmer

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