We help to run a Food Support charity on the South Coast of England. When we were applying for funding, our fundraiser asked us to give him an estimate of local food insecurity in our town, Worthing. Estimations of food insecurity are notoriously variable depending on how they are measured and over what time period. They range from 5.6% of the UK population to 14%. We adopted the estimation method used by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. They suggested nearly six million adults and 1.7 million children were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February 2021. This means 11.5% of the UK population suffer from food trauma. In our town that scaled down to over 12,000 people. If we factor in issues of relative poverty rates our approximation leapt to 16,000 people.
As we’ve noted before these figures constitute a public health emergency. But what does this look like and what can we do about it? To answer the first part, the trauma of food insecurity is relentlessly brutal. Hunger hurts children in multiple ways. It can contribute to what the American Psychological Association refer to as ‘toxic stress’– the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system’. Severe hunger can predict chronic illness among both pre-school and school-age children. Hunger-related toxic stress can negatively affect brain development, learning, and academic achievement in children and the APA warn that severe hunger can cause anxiety and depression among children.
But food insecurity is also traumatising because it is frequently stigmatized through media and public discourse. Food trauma is complex and multi-faceted. It is characterised by acute psychological pain, shame, despair and hopelessness. Those seeking food support frequently experience profound anxiety that leaves them unable to focus on a range of goals due to the immediate need to organise food for themselves and/or their family.
The move to reach out for food support can feel intensely shameful and undignified. The realisation that you are struggling to feed yourself and/or family is profoundly debilitating, as is the release of control of your food supply to an external agency. This desperation, together with a mistrust of what other people and organisations think of the need for food support, means that food support encounters must be nuanced and carefully protected.
So, what can we do about it? Thus far in the UK we have a whole host of activities and discourses organised around the notion that chronic hunger is in some way being solved. The support of holiday food vouchers, free school meals, foodbanks, Marcus Rashford’s interventions, The Right to Food Campaign, to name a few, have great value. However, collectively they fail to hide the stark reality that through decades of sustained economic austerity, entrenched inequalities, a punitive and unfit-for-purpose welfare system and the subsequent responsibilisation and invisibilisation of poverty, have led to huge numbers of people regularly living through the trauma of hunger.
We need a new approach. Here we look to the Housing First model. This is designed to address previous failures to house those who were homeless and have multiple complex needs. Typically, services try to address the complex needs before finding someone a house. This model, by putting the need for housing first, overcame hurdles that kept vulnerable people from housing. We believe that the chronic scale of food insecurity, and the associated food trauma of living through such insecurity, requires an analogous Food First approach.
As with Housing First, a Food First approach accepts that there are complex problems in current approaches to food support. It is clear that top down, bureaucratic and professional approaches to systemically address food need have not successfully addressed the scale of need. For those seeking food support, there is a significant mistrust of many of the organisations charged with addressing poverty. Many current practices of food support inadvertently stigmatise and ‘other’ those who require food support. Encounters with those who need food support must be carefully protected from both the twin urges to impel people toward healthy lifestyles and to protect them from dependency.
A Food First approach to food support is organised around three key principles- 1) the need to put dignity at the heart of all food encounters, 2) the importance of understanding the complex nature of food trauma, and 3) the value of food stability as a means by which to build relationships. The approach is based on the idea that a hungry individual or household’s primary need is to obtain food stability. Other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once food security has been achieved. Existing food security referral processes, which operate at the point of need fail to pay attention to the nature of food trauma and the scale of shame and fear of asking for food. Once the chaos of food trauma is mitigated, stabilisation can occur faster and is more long lasting.
With a Food First model there are no preconditions of food support. People have many different pathways into food trauma and the complexity of these pathways resists a top-down, bureaucratic approach to emergency food provision. Moreover, those seeking food support are not seen as service users, experts by experience, clients or customers. They are simply neighbours in need. Avoiding such othering terminology seeks to ensure a model founded on humanity and trust as the key drivers of food support relationships.
A single organisation can adopt these principles, but for the approach to reach its full potential we agree with Paslakis and colleagues’ call to action on COVID-mediated Food insecurity. Being prepared in the face of a pandemic such as COVID-19 requires that we measure, plan, organize, invest time and resources, and co-ordinate and communicate with local municipalities and the public. We need to collectively take responsibility for food insecurity at the local level.
If done well, with care and attention, a local food support system can be constructed that provides a level of stability, a sense of mattering and a humanising impulse that alleviates some of the trauma. It can build trust and provide the basis for relationships, further possibilities, support and signposting.
The Food First support system identifies those in food insecurity and then commits to feed those people, to hold them in food security, until such time as they no longer need it. This means a number of local agencies agreeing a shared set of principles and language about food security. It needs a clear commitment to mapping, measuring and outreach work across a locality, using all the coordinated resources at the disposal of local authorities, charities, food support organisations schools and health professionals. There needs to be a collective agreement to identifying and dismantling every barrier to food support.
Food insecurity, and the associated trauma, constitute a public health emergency that is continuing to grow. Our current food safety net is largely non-existent, despite the chimeras of food support lodged in the public consciousness. The principles that inform Food First run counter to the everyday orthodoxy of many food support charities, local authorities and Food Partnerships around the country. But there are now simply too many people in food insecurity not to consider a new approach.
About the authors: Carl Walker is regular contributor to the blog. Matthew Potter (@MattPott) works in community action with a particular interest in food projects and substance abuse. He helps to coordinate the Worthing Food Foundation.