Guest Blog: Food insecurity research conference – learning from across the globe

Kim Newstead and Jacqui McDowell, Senior Health Improvement Officers at Public Health Scotland joined us for the recent Food and Poverty conference. Here, they provide some of their reflections. 

We recently attended the second ENUF (Evidence and Network on UK Household Food Insecurity) UK conference on research, food and poverty. Around 200 people attended this virtual conference, including a good mix of people from academia, public health and community food projects. This two-day conference covered many topics. In this blog we provide a brief summary of several of these: similarities across Europe, some examples of dignified approaches, the impact that language and culture may have on how food insecurity is measured and addressed and UK responses to Covid-19

Rebecca O’Connell discussed her study of families in Norway, Portugal and the UK. The study explored the different lived experience of food insecurity. Given the different political, welfare and community settings there was surprising similarity in some of the key findings, for example, that lone parents are at greatest risk of food insecurity and the root cause is that income from work or benefits is insufficient to meet needs.

Tiina Silvasti continued this cross nation comparison by discussing her new book ‘The rise of food charity in Europe’. The book compares food charity systems across seven countries: Finland, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and UK. Again there are some similarities across the countries, such as:

  • More and more people are needing food aid
  • Provision of support is shifting from the state to ad hoc provision through charitable or third sector organisations
  • Often state support for food insecurity is indirect, that is, organisations are awarded funding and individuals experiencing food insecurity do not receive direct payments

Language, culture and data

Across the two day conference, there were two issues that became clear: 1) there are language challenges around how ‘hunger’, ‘food poverty’ and ‘food insecurity’ is understood across different countries, which means there is no shared understanding of the concept; and 2) there is also a lack of data about the levels of food insecurity in some countries, generally making it difficult to compare across countries.

Professor Colleen Heflin gave a USA perspective and discussed the benefits of focusing on addressing ‘food insecurity’ rather than ‘poverty’, arguing that addressing poverty alone may not always address food insecurity. Colleen discussed evidence from the USA that showed people may experience food insecurity for short-term periods only and that food programmes such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – which includes the allocation of food stamps) are efficient and cost effective at reaching people most in need. However, this presentation was followed by a good discussion about the benefits of addressing ‘poverty’ as opposed to addressing ‘food insecurity’ and the challenges of a culture that may accept public money being spent to address ‘hunger’ but not ‘poverty’.

More dignified approaches – other models

A range of dignified approaches to mitigating food insecurity were discussed throughout the conference, including Community Fridges and Social Supermarkets, both of which aim to reduce the stigma associated with food aid and provide choice.

Shelina Visram had carried out a study of the UK’s network of Community Fridges. These provide a space where organisations and households can make perishable foods that would have been wasted available to others in the community. Organisations that run community fridges do not see themselves as ‘another type of food bank’: their aim is to reduce food waste and focus on the environmental benefits. They realise some people who use them may be food insecure, but were clear that they want anyone to be able to access food in the fridges without stigma.

Sharon Polson from the Department of Social Development in Northern Ireland discussed Social Supermarkets. People become members of these community supermarkets and as well as getting access to surplus and other food at a discounted price, they also receive one-to-one mentoring, training, and benefits, debt and fuel advice in order to provide a holistic and tailored package of support. Early evaluation of the pilot social supermarkets have been positive and the NI Government is keen to roll out social supermarkets across Northern Ireland to address underlying issues of poverty.

What about the impact of Covid-19?

Across the two day conference common concerns and themes emerged both about food insecurity and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of which have been covered in media or other reports in the previous few months, such as:

  • Rising demand for food aid – increasing polarisation and inequalities
  • Service users experiencing feelings of shame, anxiety and mental health issues
  • Food aid providers adapting and working with new partners, with deliveries, meals and additional support all featuring
  • Changes to and reliance on welfare fuelling increased demand – Covid-19 a “crisis on a crisis” that already existed
  • The importance of dignity principles, choice, support and the removal of stigma
  • How food and food insecurity has become higher up the political agenda, with local decision makers more aware of the issue and the potential opportunity that this could give for more joined up responses

This blog was originally posted on the Community Food and Health (Scotland) website, here. Community Food and Health Scotland is a programme, within Public Health Scotland, which aims to ensure that everyone in Scotland has the opportunity, ability and confidence to access a healthy and acceptable diet for themselves, their families and their communities

Get in touch with Kim and Jacqui here:  Kim.newstead@nhs.net and jacqueline.mcdowell@nhs.net