Though it has fallen out of the current news cycle, food bank usage and the government’s lack of addressing the underlying reasons behind it, is still prevalent and will only grow more dire in the coming months as costs of energy and food surges. Public figures like Jack Monroe are working tirelessly to bring these concerns and inequities into the public eye, but until the government stops treating food banks or food waste redistribution as a solution to poverty we will remain forever stuck in this loop. In 2021 I researched, interviewed and wrote a piece investigating dignity of choice within food poverty support systems. Though now in spring of 2022, I believe much of it still rings true, which is why I am sharing it here.
A giant thank you to Rasheeda Graham, Sarah Elie, Sabine Goodwin and Nicole Van den Eijnde for devoting time to talking with me and sending images of the work they are doing, some of which you will find below.
This essay will also be included in Filler Magazine’s forthcoming print issue on Food & Community. Follow Filler Magazine, edited by Holly Eliza Temple on Instagram @fillerzine to keep up to date with this and upcoming print issues.
Follow Global Generation, Urban Community Projects and Somers Town Community Association on social media to stay up-to-date with events and efforts and opportunities to get involved in the work they do.
Thank you for reading.
Dignity of Choice; The Solution to Food Poverty Isn’t Edible
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an increasing number of deficits. Chief among them, food insecurity, which has soared in the U.K. — exacerbated by pandemic restrictions and conditions, the crisis has compounded pressure on already strained, support systems. Food poverty (otherwise known as poverty) is not a new problem. In pre-pandemic conditions, there was a growing demand for emergency food aid. The key word here is “emergency.” The demographic of those who have needed to turn to emergency measures like food banks has significantly widened over the last year, with a noted uptick of first-time users.
The crux of the issue is this: Lack of liveable wages for care workers, discrimination and pay gaps based on gender and race, lack of childcare options for single parents, and inadequate benefits are the underlying and unaddressed contributing factors that have driven forward the current rate of food insecurity – and yet, the systems that have been put in place to temporarily resolve this hunger emergency, are ones that are only built to tackle the immediate. What’s more, these kinds of services come with such a huge social stigma around them, they are a reported last resort for many, calling it ‘embarrassing’ or ‘shameful’. This stigma stems from a combination of the language used by policymakers around poverty, and the requirement to relinquish a sense of agency, independence or control of choice in order to receive food services
Choice is at the very core of the human development process: the thing granted as reward — a sign of trustworthiness or taken away as discipline on the journey into adulthood. And yet choice itself has become one of the first things taken from adults who find themselves facing the realities of food insecurity, as if the act of being poor requires reprimand. At many food banks, in soup kitchens, and within shelters, those in need get what they are given; they are not afforded the dignity of choice. It is this inherent sense of mistrust, whether intentional or situational, that organisations like Urban Community Projects, Global Generation The Food Hub, run through Somers Town Living Centre are working to address and remove.
Systems like food banks and emergency food boxes are quick, actionable efforts set up to provide temporary relief of hunger for those in crisis. They are not designed to address the underlying issues behind food insecurity. Sabine Goodwin of IFAN (Independent Food Aid Network) says, “There are two drivers [of poverty]: in-work poverty and poverty as a result of social security payments being woefully inadequate.” Neither of these drivers will ever be resolved with a hot meal.
But this hasn’t prevented the state from treating volunteer-run food banks, shelters, free school meals and food aid programmes as a catch-all replacement for social welfare responsibilities. Public campaigns from celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford have helped to shed light on some of underfunded emergency-based food systems, but in order to affect meaningful, systemic change it is the less glamorous, more fundamental areas like universal credit and job security that will need to be put under the microscope.
“Food-based interventions are very much needed, there’s no question about that and there’s an argument to say that it’s those kinds of interventions that will actually get past the line in government,” Goodwine said. “ “But we need to be asking for what is actually going to make a difference in the long term. We shouldn’t be dealing with poverty with food.”
Food bank usage and emergency parcel distributions have increased by a staggering 128% over the last five years, according to Trussell Trust. Given these circumstances, especially over the last two years Rasheeda Graham, the CEO of Urban Community Projects, a community-based charity currently working out of the St Pancras & Somers Town Living Centre has had to alter and expand the charity’s services including youth programmes, and one-to-one career advice, in order to help meet growing need for emergency-based food.
“Even if you’re poor, even if you’re suffering through poverty, there still has to be a level of dignity within that. I think sometimes when you’re in the business of ‘charity’ that’s all you see; like, ‘Well, we’re doing great because they’re getting food aren’t they? At least we’ve got a food bank and are able to give food out’,” says Graham.
“But, with Covid, and the need to have workers packing bags to hand out, we’re completely taking away control. So it’s not just [loss of] dignity but control. When you’re going through crisis, everything is about the loss of control. And then you come to a food bank, you feel like crap already, and there’s no control there. So even though we think we’re doing a great job, we’re compounding that misery in a sense.”
It is in this context that non-profit organisations such as Urban Community Project, Somers Town Community Association and Global Generation have set up their new collaborative project, The Food Hub, a shop-based food programme that allows shoppers more control alongside access to other long-term services.
The Food Hub’s interior mimics any other high street food shop. Those who use it are invited weekly to shop for up to £25 worth of products including fresh produce, shelf-stable products, toiletries and ready meals donated to the Hub by a local Indian restaurant Punjab Covent Garden.
The Hub is a connection point — an excuse of sorts to talk face to face with those who are struggling and connect to services either to get them working again or getting them the right amount of financial support if they can’t work. The Hub is staffed by counsellors and support from all areas of Somers Town Living Centre (STLC), to help people access services like mental health counselling, and financial services whilst picking up shopping for the week. Graham says she’s seen nearly 500 people access the foodbank since the start of the pandemic as a direct result of losing their job. Having just come from the workforce, she sees this as an opportunity to figure out the reason why they lost their job and help provide access to services like CV writing assistance and retraining programmes to find stable paid work.
Though it has only been operating since October 2020, the Food Hub has shown that its system is effective. The Hub currently (as of 2021) serves 31 households each week, including many who had already been using the Camden Mobile Food Bank, its sister organisation which still runs like a more standard bank. The response has been positive.
It works to remove what stands between the food, those who need it, and how they choose to use it. Sarah Elie, head of Somers Town Association who has been working with Graham is also keen to dispel the stereotype that food bank users will take more that they need if given the opportunity. “They don’t take two of everything. They make sure to leave what they don’t need for someone else,” she explained.
The Food Hub is also trying to help its users out of crisis and away from the cycle of dependency that can occur within food banks, by putting rules in place that will allow for a gradual tapering off of the service. Rather than the all-or-nothing approach that doesn’t always work, Elie says: “Once things start to change and people secure employment they are still welcome to come back, but they’ll start to pay around £3 a week for the supplies.” “It gives them back dignity,” says Graham. “It makes them feel like they’re not getting charity, because they’re able to give something back.”
Control, self-sufficiency, and dignity of choice lay at the foundation of any community. In cities like London, where access to outdoor space comes at a premium, organisations like Global Generation provide local residents access to community garden beds, food growing workshops and space to gather to help encourage these core values.
“We grow the food but it’s more about the opportunities that arise by doing it,” Nicole Van den Eijnde, director of Global Generation says. The organisation works with vulnerable populations and within local housing estates to offer food-growing workshops, food sharing events. Food, which is grown, is also shared in the community at events, alongside being supplied to The Food Hub.
Through their education programmes and services in their Story Garden, which lives behind the British Library, off Euston Road, Global Generation in grew nearly 260kg of fresh produce — approximately 30 garden centre-sized trolly’s worth, according to one staff member, between March and November 2020: Lots of leafy, fast-growing greens and lettuces at the beginning of the season, then beans, spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, and more as it progressed, all delivered to support Camden Mobile Food Bank and the Food Hub. The organisation also provides grow beds, workshops, resources, and advice for 95 community members living in flats without direct access to outdoor space, to grow their own organic produce. “We see food growing and gardening in the middle of the city as something that can be expanded from the Story Garden into all areas of the neighbourhood,” says Van den Eijnde; “Even if in small amounts, there’s still something there by putting that nutritious, organically grown food into your home.”
Each of these organisations is designed to function as a closed loop cycle; one that works to link up individual needs with the wider community needs, understanding that the health and success of each is relational.
“It’s a whole joined up service that involves the whole community,” Rasheeda Graham said. Once the training had been completed and new rooftop beds were built, a few paid horticultural positions would have the responsibility of keeping fresh produce in stock for the Food Hub.
“It’s about how can you as a human being be fulfilled and also give something to the societies and communities that you live in. And that’s a really strong and important message for young people,” Graham added. “We’re not saying we want you to work in an office when we know you’re going to hate it. “Our job is to really tap into what they want to be doing, and get them the foundation and the qualification to go out and find paid work.”
Urban Community Project, through a similar training programme, is designing a food bank app, which will enable users to shop and select the items they need, either by delivery or for collection. . A group of twelve young creative students living within the local housing estates will be responsible for delivering the marketing of the food bank’s application. Through a training programme called Learning Curve the students are working to earn digital design qualifications, for future employment alongside the betterment of the food bank’s services.
Food banks play an important role in the midst of crisis. At the same time, they are not the solution to food insecurity. It’s time to demand the government stop treating them as such. The goal of food banks, even according to the food banks themselves, is to become obsolete.
And yet, they will continue to exist. For as long as they do, the food aid structure must do all it can to promote dignity of control and trust.
Because, as Goodwin says, “there is always going to be an element of indignity for someone who has to rely on free, reduced, subsidised, or surplus food to survive.