Food reframed: reflections on food insecurity from Dr Rebecca Wells
As an On Purpose Associate, sustainability and systems change are two of the key social and environmental topics that arise frequently in debate and discussion with my cohort and in our wider community.
I believe the way we build food and farming systems has a major impact on the health of people and planet. In this final interview in a series about food and farming I speak to Dr Rebecca Wells, IFSTAL Teaching Fellow at City University’s Centre for Food Policy about food insecurity, waste and the use of food banks.
To start our conversation, I ask Rebecca to talk about the current state of the UK food system and its impact on our health.
Our food system is highly industrialised and has its historical roots in a concern arising after the second world war that there wouldn’t be enough food to provide for all of the population. Arising from this worry there was a drive to produce ever more food, encouraged by government subsidies to farmers which, generally speaking, led to the industrialisation of our agriculture and food production and the commodification of some types of foods. Today we don’t have so much of a problem getting the food that we need as a country, and much of our food is quite cheap, but there are questions about the nutritional value and health effects of what many of us consume.
We now eat a lot of processed foods, for example, while there’s ongoing debate about whether we’re consuming enough fruit and vegetables and whether they’re affordable enough for people to buy. There’s real concern around the ability of everyone in the country to get the recommended levels of nutrients in their diet. So when we talk about the levels of malnutrition and food insecurity that exist, it’s not just a question of whether people are going hungry; it’s also about our intake of unhealthy foods that we know contribute to increased levels of overweight and obesity.
There seems to be a real disconnect between plentiful food supply and people living with food insecurity. How can this be explained?
This is where a systems perspective is really important to keep in mind. Food consumption is not just a linear relationship with a producer at one end and a consumer at the other. In reality, there are many more factors influencing what people eat and why they eat it. For example, there’s the question of availability to consider; can people buy nutritious food in their local shops? Also thinking about working people, they often struggle to find time for meal preparation and may worry about food going off and wasting; there’s been a decline in cooking skills in the population, too. Some people live without access to electricity or gas in their homes which prevents them from being able to cook.. There is then a large amount of advertising for products high in fat, salt and sugar that influences our consumption behaviour and has negative health impacts.
Can you talk about the connections being made between wastage and food insecurity for some parts of the population?
A third of all the food we produce globally is wasted from farms and homes and in the supply chain. Many in the media, policy circles and in the business world make the case that we need to connect our unwanted food with those who don’t have enough. Providing food to food banks, for example, is one channel for making this connection. But it’s a more complicated issue than that. Do you have to ask why should some people live off others’ waste? What about taking account of their culture and their likes and dislikes? The question for me, also covered in the work of Martin Caraher, is why would you not give those people higher welfare payments so they have the right to choose what they want to eat. Another inherent problem in this kind of redistribution model is the kind of food that ends up in food banks. You’re less likely to get fresh food and much more likely to get tins and packets. There’s a systemic issue here; the model of redistribution isn’t solving either the food waste or the food shortage problems.
I know you’ve done a lot of research into media portrayals of food banks. Can you explain what your findings were?
There’s often a general media narrative around people on welfare that says they’re ‘scroungers’ or the ‘undeserving’ poor who squander their money. In fact, this is quite a longstanding historical perspective. When we looked at the media portrayal of food bank users though, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Many food banks are hosted in churches and perhaps because of this it seemed there was a kind of ‘halo effect’ ascribed to the volunteers operating in those spaces. Media reports showed them embodying the Christian ethic of helping the needy. In turn, the food bank users themselves were often portrayed in a very sympathetic light, as the ‘deserving poor’.
Given the disconnects between food supply, waste and insecurity for some, what changes would you like to see made to the food system?
Currently, government departments whose work involves food issues operate quite separately and give out conflicting messages. One example is that the government wants people to eat more fish, especially oily fish, as it’s good for their health. Yet, on the other hand, there are concerns about over-fishing; any increase in consumption of fish brought about by government campaigns would have an adverse impact on our fish stocks. The question is whether anyone is joining up these dots by looking at levels of fish imports needed to respond to behaviour change.
I think the new National Food Strategy contains some interesting ideas on how we move towards a more systems-oriented approach, especially in relation to subsidies, food production and public health.
My hope would be for an overarching strategy with a more joined-up vision of the food system that could link all these policy areas together and make recommendations accordingly.
Find out more about Dr Rebecca Wells’ research here.