Research findings from Pat Caplan, Goldsmiths University of London
Tourists who visit Pembrokeshire for its spectacular scenery and National Park might be surprised to know that there is a high rate of food insecurity, which usually betokens poverty. Why is this?
Pembrokeshire has a high unemployment rate and those jobs which are available are often seasonal (as in the tourist or farming industries), part-time and/or with zero-contract hours and one of the lowest rates of pay in the UK. Areas which previously had some industry, like the towns in the south of the county, now have very little. In farming, mechanisation has meant fewer workers on the land, and the relentless need to cut costs means that many farming families also need to engage in off-farm activities to make ends meet. Hence rural poverty is quite as real as urban poverty.
For all of these reasons, some residents of the county need to have recourse to the benefits system, which may not meet all of their needs, as the amounts received are low compared with the cost of living; indeed there have been some actual cuts to benefits. There are particular problems associated with people getting ’sanctioned’ for failure to comply with the complex requirements while currently the roll-out of the new Universal Credit system may also mean long periods (usually weeks, sometimes months) without income.
Why is food a particular aspect of poverty?
One reason is that food consumption is part of the private, domestic sphere, so what you eat at home is essentially your own business. But given that many of those who are food insecure have multiple demands on their low incomes, such as the need to pay for fixed costs like housing, energy and council tax, they may well choose to economise on eating. This is because failure to pay such bills might have dire consequences like falling into debt, the arrival of the bailiffs, or even eviction. Economists call food the most ‘elastic’ part of the household budget.
Coping with food poverty
During my research on food poverty in the county over the last four years, I found that many of the food poor were well aware of what constitutes good food and how to cook it. The problem is lack of money to buy it. Purchasing cheaper food, usually processed in some way, is one coping strategy. Skipping meals is another, and one which parents resort to when money has run out and the kids need to be fed. In the often tightly-knit communities of Pembrokeshire, assistance to relatives, even neighbours and friends, is common, but clearly has its limits.
What help is available for those in food poverty?
There are a number of forms of food aid. For example, some voluntary agencies run lunch clubs for children during the school holidays, since those on free school meals would not get them at this time. So-called ‘holiday hunger’ is becoming a recognised and widespread problem throughout the UK and last year the Welsh government announced a fund to support holiday meals schemes. Other agencies run lunch clubs for pensioners, serving a nutritious meal for very little cost, while in some places, there are weekly ‘community meals’ for all who come along. The serving of cooked food brings people together both in terms of its organisation and preparation, and also enables those who eat the meals to do so in a social setting in company with others.
Pembrokeshire also has a number of food banks, mostly situated in the centre and south of the county. The food bank network and franchise The Trussell Trust has four food banks operating in Narberth (which is also the headquarters), Letterston, Pembroke Dock and Haverfordwest. An independent charity Patch (Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Hardship) also has four food banks, in Milford Haven (headquarters), Pembroke Dock, Haverfordwest and Begelly, and in the first of these it also offers clothes and household equipment.
Food banks are mostly run by teams of volunteers, although there are a small number of paid managers, with Boards of Trustees responsible to the Charity Commission. Many food banks operate out of church halls and many volunteers (not all) belong to churches and chapels.
Volunteers perform a myriad of tasks:
• Collecting food and putting it in the storage area
• Sorting and dating food to ensure that it is always ‘within date’
• Making up food parcels for clients and, in cases where clients cannot get into a centre, delivering it to them
• Buying whatever kind of food has run out
• Setting up the area where clients are received
• Receiving clients and checking vouchers
• Making tea and coffee for clients and other volunteers
• Clearing up to ensure that other users of the space find it as they would wish.
Where does donated food come from?
Food banks obtain their supplies in a number of ways. The first is from the public:
• Donations from people who put items in the collecting baskets in supermarkets
• Once a year before Christmas the volunteers are allowed to collect food outside some supermarkets
• Some supermarkets give top-ups in cash for donated food; this is calculated by weight of food
• Members of the public may also give cash
• Schools hold Harvest Festivals at which the items solicited fall into the categories of food needed by food banks (tinned, packaged and bottled)
• Some churches and chapels also collect food donations and money on a regular basis
The second source is from the food industry:
• Some food banks set up partnerships with food wholesalers and retailers willing to donate food close to its ‘best before’ date but still perfectly edible (i.e. before its ‘sell by’ date). Sometimes the packaging might be damaged but not the contents (e.g. squashed cardboard, dented tins). This system still continues for some charities.
• In the last couple of years, food has also been available to food banks (and to other charities which serve cooked meals) through the Fareshare Food Cloud app. Charities are linked to a particular supermarket and given a weekly slot to collect surplus food at the end of the day or early in the morning. This system is administered and monitored by the organisation Fareshare which has long acted as a conduit for the use of surplus food. This new scheme has enabled food banks and other charities to obtain some fresh food which they dispose of either by cooking or giving away very quickly, as few of them have storage facilities for such food.
So does the food aid available solve the problem of food poverty?
Yes and no. Yes, because some people are able to access additional food which can see them through a short period of difficulty. They also often get a sympathetic reception and can, if they wish, talk about their problems, even get ‘sign-posting’ to other organisations which might help with debt, housing, health or other problems.
No, because as all food aid organisations, especially food banks, will tell you: ‘we are only a sticking plaster, we’d really like to do ourselves out of business and see the problem of food poverty solved.’
A second No because of the limitations of the system, especially in the case of food banks. Most food given out is long-life and even though recently there has been some access to fresh food, supplies of both types of food are uncertain. Thus many food banks have full storage areas after harvest festival time and before Christmas, but may find themselves short at other times. Furthermore, while members of the public may be willing to give, few check the lists of what is required, hence the permanent glut of baked beans (which are not even on most wanted lists!).
A third No because of the problem of stigma. People who go to food banks, like those who need to have recourse to benefits, are frequently stigmatised by others and often internalise this stigma, seeing themselves as failures. This is particularly a problem in small communities: ‘you don’t want to be seen as poor!’
Some new ways of tackling food poverty
Scotland has sought to bring ‘dignity’ into issues of food and poverty, and to place both issues and people into a more social setting. A number of organisations like Menu for Change and Nourish Scotland are seeking to move away from the now fairly standard food bank model and find different ways of connecting people and food and in this they are being supported by the Scottish government.
There is growing awareness of these trends on the part of a number of Welsh organisations such as the Food Poverty Alliance and those organisations responsible for distributing food aid, like food banks. In addition, there is a Welsh Food Manifesto under discussion. The Welsh government is also concerned about food poverty in two major contexts. The first is in terms of its wellbeing strategy (Well being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) with its Communities First programmes designed to tackle poverty. The second context is formed by the issues outlined in the Food for Wales, Food from Wales 2010-2020 Report which advocates the sustainable strengthening of the food supply chain.
In short then, there are moves to see food poverty in a much wider context involving not only factors like low income, but also to connect these issues to the production, distribution and consumption of food for individuals, families and communities.
Pat Caplan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, London. She has been a part-time resident of Pembrokeshire for 47 years, and has previously carried out other research projects there on food and health, risk, and the social effects of animal diseases.