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5 Years in Food Poverty

Part 1

Lessons Learnt

Looking back 5 years is a long time in food poverty. We started out with the best intentions, trying to organise, trying to make sense of it all, wanting to make a substantial change and, above all, wanting to feed people well.

Our journey started by arranging 3 conferences, all delivered in quick succession, intended to generate momentum and purpose. Throughout the conference attendees enthusiastically backed, on record, our aim to improve the quality of the food offering; there was not a single detractor amongst the 160 organisations in attendance. Yet, 3 years on from the last conference, most of the same organisations have done little or nothing to instigate any sort of change. Instead what they have preferred to do is pretend progress; criticise but claim it’s only meant to be constructive and never once be prepared to enter in to real discussions about creating the sort of change that would make sure hungry people are fed well.

As we tell our 5-year story in this series of short blogs we retain the same position we began with back in 2012 – food poverty can be stopped if the goal is making sure hungry people have access to good fresh food by choice. Everything we have done has focused solely on this goal – here is the story so far!

Absolute or Relative – Creating a Good Food System

When people are talking about food poverty what do they mean? Too often the term is being used as a catch all for everything going on in the poverty framework – it’s unfortunately trendy for organisations to say “we are in food poverty” but without a substantive reference point as to why and on behalf of whom?

From our experience, there are two types of food poverty;

Absolute: Capturing people who have no food whatsoever and are reliant on food banks and other such services for some sort of sustenance. This area is heavily populated with the supply offered by food banks etc.

Relative: Capturing people who have some means to avoid the use of food banks yet regularly skip meals due to finances. This area of work is completely under-developed and largely hidden. It’s the area where the festering struggle of millions of people starts to take shape, it’s the stage before these people find themselves descended on the food chain and into the reliance of food banks, i.e. absolute poverty.

Helping those who are absolutely skint should remain a priority, but we now must look to help those who are teetering on the edge and are therefore relatively skint, if you like. It’s time to arrange local food services to look after everyone with a good food offer. Doing this, and we think it can be done, means;

  • If people have nothing – they will get good food.
  • If they have a little – they will get good food.
  • If children are at school – they will get good food.
  • If older people are in care or returning home from hospital – they will get good food.
  • If people want to shop – there will be good food to buy.

Our experience of developing good food services, together with the food poverty work we have undertaken, has given us the will and knowledge to plan a model of delivery that we have called Good Food Areas. We are resolute in our conviction that this model can stop food poverty in every area it is set up to deliver in; it is this model that will now take our work forward. This model will launch quietly in September and we are currently negotiating with local authorities who will act as partners in a region-wide rollout.

What is innovative about GFA’s is that it utilises and improves the food services that already exist within every community and then re-uses elements of the profits to ensure that no person goes hungry and everyone has access to good food options. And by good food options we mean; options to shop, options to access subsidised meals and at-all-times, options that allow hungry families to access to freshly cooked meals in their time of crisis.

There is a lot of detail to the model, too much for a blog. If you are interested in the direction we are taking and have questions, please contact us.

Part 2:

Why Sandwiches Are Dangerous

The whiter the bread the sooner you’ll be dead.” –  Michael Pollan

Time to discuss the value of a sandwich in working class communities right across the UK. Of course, not all sandwiches are the same but we are not talking about a Waldorf here – far from it. The sandwiches we come across, made to provide children with a meal, amount to not much more nutrition than a packet of crisps.

“You could take your eye out with one of those!” A friend of ours once said when discussing all that cardboard like white bread with cardboard like processed cheese – she was of course exaggerating, but not by much, and her point does set the context for why sandwiches are such a big problem when dealing with children’s diet and hunger.

We have found, via our Share-Holiday-Hunger-Campaign, that a lot of children we fed were wholly locked into the offer of a sandwich – it is their “food comfort blanket”, and when the sandwich wasn’t there for them, it took some coaxing to switch them into trying/eating a good meal. It is a learnt behaviour (a dependency) taken on from both the home and school environments; in both, the headteacher and the parent is making their sandwich decision based on saving time and money.

Let’s be clear, a sandwich should never be a meal and always a snack – a filler and not a meal replacement. Sandwiches are a cheap and easy fix and, because of this, they have become a mainstay – useful for getting people past that initial hunger pang. They are, though, only that; a quick and easy fix – and what comes next and just as quickly (particularly for the child who is playing or studying), is that return to hunger and the need for a good meal.

Most of us love a sandwich, we do because we can choose to eat that sandwich safe in the knowledge that a good hearty meal will soon follow. But for those who do not have the same choices, or for the children who are forced or continually tempted at home, in centres or at school by the offer of a sandwich alone – on their behalf, it’s time to discuss the consequences.

Most sandwiches served in working class communities consist of (with the odd scattering of lettuce, or maybe a slice of tomato or cucumber);-

  • Only processed products (cheese and ham being favourites) sat in-between white bread or worse still;-
  • Chocolate spread

It is a composition of foodstuffs analysed by experts to damage people’s health in the medium/long term. In the current poverty climate and given our insight into children’s food dependencies, it’s fair to estimate that up to a million children could be regular diners on just those poor food sandwiches. Becoming the go-to meal replacement for children who are also enduring many other struggles; it is no doubt a contributor to the ongoing public health crisis that is the blight of so many children nationwide.

It is therefore the responsibility of everyone involved in the food poverty movement to realise the deficiencies of the sandwich offer and to come up with viable option. It is a problem hidden within a bigger problem and going unrecognised. Processed ingredients between two slices of bread, intended as a meal, have no place whatsoever in feeding hungry children.

Now is the time to start the discussion about how good sandwiches (snacks made from fresh ingredients), can be part of the solution, and as we start the discussion, the ‘some food is better than no food’ argument has long gone and on behalf of the children who deserve better, they should get better.

Part 3

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 poverty only 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.

Part 4

Campaigning Matters But Be Aware…

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;-

  1. Raise awareness of the food problems people were/are facing
  2. Supply thousands of fresh meals to people who were/are hungry and;
  3. 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.

Part 5

Charity Will Never Solve The Problem But May Make It Worse

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.

Part 6

Hidden Hunger

We wrote in an earlier blog about relative food poverty, the place where hidden hunger takes hold, the place where people do their best to cope, asking friends and family for short term help or often going without to cope or worse still slipping into the pernicious world of localised debt and all the sharks that circle that murky activity. Imagine if you can (and most who people who advise in these situations, can’t) the stress having to go without and also watching your children suffer as a consequence.

One article, published by New Statesman last October, highlighted the extreme measures that those in poverty had resorted to in order to acquire money as a consequence of the benefit reform. At present there are nearly 50 people on the crowdfunding website who have used the words ‘Universal Credit’ in their plea. The article goes on;-

‘In February, Heather’s home had a power cut,’ one claimants story reads, ‘As her severely asthmatic nine-year-old son requires a plugged-in nebuliser to help his breathing, Heather called an ambulance. “By 10pm my baby was sedated and being treated intravenously in intensive care,” Heather wrote on her crowdfunding page. As she was with her son in the hospital, she then missed her Jobcentre appointment. In response, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctioned her, meaning she received no UC for two months.’

This is amounts to “digital begging” – good people being forced to promote their struggle to strangers in the hope that they will feel sorry enough to donate to their cause – a path crowdfunding was never intended for. A path that will be short lived as many more try the same route and or until someone cheats the digital begging system and the Mail, Sun or Telegraph get hold of the story, and we know they will be watching/waiting. It’s not going to end well and all the time desperate, good people remain and will remain the victims whichever way this part of the food poverty story plays out.

The Statesman article isn’t an atypical illustration in the media spike that has soared since the rollout of Universal Credit – each day comes a new indication of the reality that claimants face, and as the rollout continues these realities are bleak with no upside.

Thousands like Heather will turn to food banks as the welfare reform continues & unmanageable standards fail to be met. Thousands more stay silently hungry until they can afford to eat; the ‘hidden hungry’, the hungry remaining unseen and unaccounted for by the national food poverty figures gathered by independent researchers & campaigners; figures/data still, unoccupied by any national government study/statistics.

It is incumbent of us all to put pressure on our local MP’s and instruct them to challenge hunger of all kinds. If they are Conservative and in Government be relentless in the challenge laid upon them about the life-threatening crisis their callous support for the welfare bill has caused. And if they are Labour and in opposition be as relentless in challenging them to establish an alternative model, that once in Government will reform benefits and stamp out the poor food practice that holds together the current food aid system. Only then will things change and only then will good people who deserve better get what they deserve.

Our Food Poverty Track Record:-

  • 3 conferences
  • Published a Position statement, published a report
  • Share Your Lunch Campaign + Share “Holiday Hunger” Campaign
  • 30,000 free fresh meals distributed (since 2016)

Now it’s time to move on and pass the baton on – for us making sure Good Food Areas sticks is now our priority; making sure hungry people get fed well every day in every area we work.

We’ll continue to observe the spaces filled by food banks and recycled food, we hope the change we’ve so long campaigned for will appear in these two areas soon.

If you have supported the work we do, thank you. If you have been a critic of ours then please ask yourself the question, why would you not want to feed people good, fresh food? It’s time we stop designing services that feed people, but to design a service that feeds people well.

2 replies
  1. Karen Harper
    Karen Harper says:

    I am director of one of the charities Robbie is talking about i don’t know we’re some members of our community would have been if it wasn’t for can cook meals but they also fed our children’s minds sowing a seed giving them the confidence and skills to cook fresh food safely for themselves and family now we as a charity have to follow Robbie’s lead and build on our youngsters new skills and provide more opportunities for them to bake or cook for themselves or members of our community introducing them to new ingredients and showing them how to cook from fresh but to also be able to store freeze for another day it’s a start to change this oppressive cycle invest in the children of the future as government isn’t x
    Love Robbie and the Can Cook team and can honestly say they mean everything they say they are passionate about food poverty and they will be the change society needs and i am with them 100% thank you for believing in us at The Rhys Jones Centre and our community x


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