Robert Egger, American food campaigner and entrepreneur, has two pertinent quotes that are relevant to the ongoing roll out of food poverty services here in the UK.
“Too often, charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” And; “Pity isn’t a plan.”
At Can Cook we passionately believe in the need for charity, it helps people out of immediate risk and it can, an often does, fill gaps mobilising local people to generate local responses. Charity has the ability to move much quicker than more established statutory services and can therefore stem a local problem quicker. It is, however, only ever meant to be a temporary measure, filling in those short-term gaps, alerting others who can take on the bigger challenge of solving the problem.
Charity and food poverty is a good case study. In the UK, the charity response to food poverty was strong, putting a service in place as the public sector struggled to cope. Setting up food banks in the case of the Trussell Trust or producing reports such as those published by Oxfam – it was all activity that laid the foundations for the food poverty movement we have now. It has created a movement that parts of the UK the public has bought into via donations of all sorts and it has done so via a frenzy of activity and emotion; highlighting struggle, lobbying those with influence, and all the time looking to secure more resources to respond to increased demand – this is classic charity but classic charitable models have real limitations and those limitations ultimately restrict the value and scope of the response as the problem gets worse or as is the case the Government ignores the problem altogether.
Moreover, charity cannot really campaign; it can object and subtly lobby, but start to cast influence and step too far into a political campaigning role and the Government can step in with threats of closure. Charity is also restricted by the donations it receives either from a public appeal it may administer or directly from a grants system it will apply to for whatever project it has in mind. It means that charity becomes quickly boxed in as the problem gets worse, needing more resources but finding those resources are finite and increasingly competitive, needing to say more but being careful not to say too much. It becomes a revolving door of lots of projects all wanting to do similar things, dreaming up the next new idea to keep potential funders happy, hardly ever joined up (because of competition) and ultimately leading to what we have now regarding food poverty here in the UK – thousands of little projects, all well intentioned, relying on volunteers and recycled (mostly processed) food, digging in for the long haul. It is unsustainable, it tires good people out and whilst it generates local services and awareness amongst those who (it could be argued) would support poverty initiatives anyway – it’s never able to move the problem into the mainstream of society and therefore will never offer a solution to the problem.
Right now, the food poverty problem is a charity problem. As a backdrop to services too much of the charitable activity is about the redemption of the giver and contains a strong thread of pity being part of the plan. Having generated lots of activity and local mini-projects, after roughly 8 years of concerted effort; still using the same methods of delivery and mostly relying on volunteers to deliver some sort of change – the model is tired and in need of a complete overhaul. But will those with a vested interest in the status quo be brave enough or will they cling onto what they have? It is likely the same-old will prevail. The current model is sustainable because its low cost (free food, free labour) and the alternative require new thinking and a shift of resources and that’s all about change. Let’s hope some are brave enough; the Feeding Britain initiative appears to be ready to break the mould and time will tell if it is able to do so.
We hope to see if the food poverty movement can offer solutions that are about good food, are about job chances and are able, through local enterprise, to generate solutions that can financially sustain themselves – it can be done but we need to be quick.
Campaigns are an underused but a very valuable tool the third sector has. Done well, they push out key messages and provide credible information and feedback that can then be used to influence those who have the power to instigate change. They are though tough to manage and should never be confused with the straight PR promotion of the organisation involved – good campaigns are designed to solve a social problem.
We set up the ‘Share’ campaign to;-
Raise awareness of the food problems people were/are facing
Supply thousands of fresh meals to people who were/are hungry and;
Draw attention to possible Good Food solutions that are available
Drawing celebrity, private and public sector support, the campaign pushed the messages of people’s hunger into areas previously hidden from the facts. It created a feedback structure that allowed people to vent their frustrations and for the first time take part in the debate. It allowed campaign partners to use their expertise to add new insights that in turn generated quite large donations which in turn enabled us to produce over 30,000 meals delivered to feed people of all ages – it was a massive and very successful effort.
Campaigns do though contain an inherent warning sign; best categorised as ‘the good, the not so good and the downright ugly’ – here was our experience…
The good comes when people get behind the message, understand the problem and want to help; thousands of good people came forward during the Share Campaigns, offering donations, offering help, giving up their Christmas day to make sure people were fed well.
The not so good came quickly, mostly from food banks making spurious emotive claims about the perceived plight of the people we were feeding; always taking the moral high ground of their clients being needier than ours, never once providing facts, hiding behind ‘we know best’ type statements. And then there was the downright ugly – people involved in the third (food) sector actually claiming that good food is not part of the solution, claiming that the only sustainable solution was the poor food options that prop up food banks. Again, no basis in fact – all emotive but all very public.
So that’s campaigns for you – vital for raising awareness, vital for raising funds and vital for raising emotions of all kinds. We have enjoyed our campaign trail/trial. We have learnt a lot about hunger, about people’s perceptions of hunger and most importantly about the impact good food has on people lives when they are in food crisis. Supplying over 30,000 free fresh meals has given a significant insight into how people are coping and what they need to move on to better circumstances. We are now going to use all that experience to make sure we shape a service that always remembers that social justice means people getting the best service possible regardless of their struggle.
Which leads me into the next part of our story; why charity is part of the problem and why problems such as food poverty require structural responses that are enterprising, using and improving existing food businesses to solve the problem by making sure hungry people have access to good food wherever they come-into-contact-with-it. The Share campaign has taught us how to do this.
Most Involved in Food Poverty Know Nothing About Food
Think about this for a moment; you are hungry and you are trusting organisations to feed you when you are most in need. You would hope that those organisations know something about food – yet most don’t, and it’s dangerous.
Can Cook was initially set up in 2007 to teach people how to cook. A decade later and we’ve taught over 15,000 people to cook and have, in addition, established a good food enterprise with our own range of chilled meals. We work with a dietician to continuously improve the health benefits and overall quality of the food we provide. We note this because we have maintained that if you work in food, you should know food – and working in food poverty should be no different.
For years, the Trussell Trust have defended their food bank parcel by claiming it had been designed by a nutritionist and that they had a report to support this claim. This report has never been produced and the nutritionist has never been identified, yet still the same poor food parcel, consisting mainly of tinned and processed goods, continues to dominate the food poverty supply chain.
Therefore, let’s be completely clear here, medium term use of a food bank parcel damages people’s health and any counter claims are emotive and have no basis in fact. We make this point because there are those who have criticised our fresh meal response as the wrong route to take, claiming that food poverty is more than just the supply of good food to those who are hungry. Again, let’s be clear here, it’s not – food poverty means people do not have any or enough food and as such need food to assist them when desperate – so the quality of the food means everything and again the counter claims are emotive and have no basis in fact.
The food poverty arena is dominated by charities who are good at logistics but do not understand food. In this space, Trussell Trust and Fareshare are the two main suppliers of those logistical services. These companies arrange the warehousing licensing and transport of donated foodstuffs. Once donated, the same food is then given out in its original state to people or organisations who in turn need that food to survive or then in the case of third sector groups, provide the food to their service users. These logistical services are an important conduit if the aim is to stop the landfill of re-usable food, however they were not ever designed to feed hungry people well. Moreover, it is now important to recognise and accept that these services do little more than churn a randomised supply of donated foodstuffs into a randomised offer of (mostly) processed food that has no basis to claim that it is nutritious or good for people to eat.
Knowing about food and the effects that good and bad food has on the individuals who will eat it should be a pre-requisite for any food business. Here at Can Cook we have to comply with a raft of regulations to ensure the food we produce is safe and healthy for people to eat it. We spend weeks, sometimes months, designing and refining recipes/ menus with the focus of people eating well whether they are paying customers of ours or people referred due to the struggle of having no money/no food.
Everyone who receives a food service should be safe in the knowledge that food service has been set up to protect their wellbeing. Unfortunately, in the private sector there have been numerous stories or unscrupulous companies dodging the rules and pretending they are not. The Third Sector still has a chance to change and adapt linking up those who are good at logistics with those who know food – creating a service that can merge the best of both.
Our guess is that this will not happen and the larger charities will still pursue an intention to go and grow alone or with other ‘big’ charities that can improve their ‘bid-ability’, focusing on income over solution. If this happens, and we return to something we wrote 4 years ago, the sector will be complicit in institutionalising food poverty – and if that happens there will be one big loser (or millions as the case will be) – those people who are hungry.
For The Record
It’s imperative that we tackle food poverty in a city like Liverpool; our region holds five of England’s ten poorest districts, one third of our children grow up in poverty; 20% of older people receiving a home care visit are in food poverty and a shocking 45% of families in the city region live below the poverty line. To be candid, poverty is blighting the wellbeing of individuals from every generation and touching too many people at each stage of their lives.
Poverty, and more specifically food poverty, is an epidemic that envelops our city, but it’s certainly not one that’s exclusive to Liverpool alone. In 2015/16, approximately 12.8 million UK individuals were reported to be living in absolute poverty (AHC), including 3.7 million children. Around 15% of all older people and 7 million individuals from working households are living in poverty. Britain’s biggest food bank provider, the Trussel Trust, reported to have given out 1.2 million food parcels in 2016-17, the ninth consecutive year in which demand for its service had risen. It’s a chilling indictment that hunger in the UK is significantly increasing, yet the blanket response to our nation’s food poverty remains as it was 8 years ago – saturated with poor food.
The current food bank offer can contain up to 24 tins and zero fresh produce; 45% of all food bank goods go unused by the recipient as they cannot be adequately combined to constitute a ‘proper’ meal. Graver still, the UK’s food system has made processed, unhealthy foodstuffs the cheaper (and therefore more attractive option), to the money-poor, time-poor parent who needs to feed their family. The 18% increase in the number of people living in persistent povertyonly highlights the fact that the range of foodstuffs affordable and available to the absolutely and relatively ‘skint’ are, undoubtedly, failing to support individuals move on from their crisis. In this economy, we require a significant shift in government policy or a change of government, – improving benefits, improving wages or we need a good food poverty system. Anything short of one or the other or a mix of the two is a failure that makes people and society as a whole, poorer – it really is as simple as that.