Gin and skinned rabbits

Reflecting on the disappearance of local food culture in modern Britain, Gary Stott and Clara Widdison explain how their venture Community Shop is supporting neighbourhoods suffering from food poverty to begin rebuilding an inclusive food culture.

There was a flurry of excitement when gin was added back into the shopping basket of the Retail Prices Index (RPI) this year, its resurgence in popularity attributed by the media to the middle-class hipster movement looking to reconnect with British heritage brands.

The basket of goods, which forms the basis of the RPI, is intriguing because it tells the story of a rich link between prices, food culture, imagination and knowledge.

Back in 1947, when the shopping basket was first compiled, Clement Attlee was Prime Minister and unskinned rabbits, lard and condensed milk were in the basket.

Brown bread was added in the 1950s, fish fingers early in the 60s, wine in the 70s and frozen ready meals in the 80s.

But it is one thing to know that a skinned rabbit framed a pivotal cost analysis coordination point for the cost of living in 1947 and quite another to reflect on a world where a skinned rabbit raised not an eyebrow with the general public as a meal option.

In 1947 Gary’s dad would be sent to John’s Shop to buy the groceries on a daily basis. He would buy a skinned rabbit and lard and condensed milk.

And he would buy a pint of milk (£3.82 in today’s prices), 400g of bacon for £6.82 and 250g of butter at £2.

Bread would have been really good value at 68p. It would have been baked locally and of pretty good quality. There was not the option of shopping around the supermarkets for a different deal.

On the way back from John’s, Gary’s dad would have called on Jack Lang. Jack was a weaver at Hardmans Mill and a very keen allotmenteer who had fresh produce coming out of every drawer in the kitchen. Eggs were in ready supply too.

When Gary’s dad was unable to pay Jack for a bunch of leek fingerlings or half a dozen eggs, he would bring a homemade fruit loaf instead, which was Jack’s preferred method of payment.

Gary’s dad’s family, the Ryans, were dirt poor, mended shoes and darned clothes. But he never, in all the stories he heard at his father’s knee, heard the term “food poverty”.

Although the Ryans had very little money, there was always a pot of hot stew and toasted bread with butter available for each of the family members and any visitors that would happen by.

Growing up in Accrington in the 1970s, Gary felt part of a rich food culture in which his mum’s Lancashire hotpot recipe was revered by the other Mother’s Union members and homemade tomato soup warmed them on the sidelines of each Accrington Stanley match.

And he never questioned the fact that if they lacked the means to buy food a kindly man with an allotment would see to it that they had the essentials in return for a share in the next batch of fruit cake.

How many children growing up in Accrington today could say the same?

Since those times, “food poverty” has become a catch-all term, and like all catch-alls it lets us get away with lazy thinking. As with homelessness, crime, vandalism, poverty, it is all too tempting to believe that food poverty is too big, too simple, too “mostly their own fault” to understand the more complex and nuanced conversation which needs to surround it.

In some parts of the UK it is clearly tough to access good quality, reasonably priced food. But if food poverty is only seen to start and end with the ability to purchase food from the industrial food system, we will search in vain for a solution.

In contrast, we can look around the world at food cultures where people mix bought products with homegrown items, imaginative cost-effective cooking techniques with old family recipes, sharing tables with other households within the community and cooking together to make food go further. Often we forget that that culture was once ours, within living memory.

We have instead been sold a food culture in which we have little control over the products, methods of production, prices and preparation.

Many communities have lost their capacity to produce and distribute food and therefore to keep decision making at a community level, giving them the ability to respond to diverse community needs.

Individuals and families have certainly lost some of the skills and knowledge that our grandmothers and their mothers would have had. We find this skills deficit across all income levels.

Although we have not systematically collected data in the UK, the organisation monitoring Canada’s food insecurity, PROOF, recently released a report that showed food preparation skills and cooking ability are equal between those who are food insecure and those who are food secure.

Money allows the wealthier in society to buy into faux food culture that both protects us from hunger and allows us a sense of identity through food.

Whether a weekly box of carefully measured ingredients for a Moroccan tagine with a step-by-step recipe is delivered to our doorstep, or we have a reliance on pre-made sushi, we can be made to feel cultured in food as a result of this easy access to McDonaldized versions of other cuisines.

Financial poverty does not afford the less well-off people in society the same ability to paper over the erosion of food heritage and culture so easily. Instead, what is most often made available to them – if they are able to afford it at the price set by multinational retailers – is cheap, nutrient-dense, processed food.

This is not the first time that problems of accessing food have affected whole communities. For instance, soul food, the staple of the USA’s Deep South, was born out of the meagre provision of food on plantations: low quality meat cuts and a reliance on foraging and subsistence farming.

As a result one of the hallmarks of soul food was sharing, with communities pooling their resources to create meals that were more generous and better tasting than any one individual could make.

Although this period was marked by suffering and subjection, soul food became a symbol of resistance that provided not just bodily nourishment, but psychological liberation from the oppressive causes of food poverty.

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, was one of many communities where this happened. But it is one of the very few in which the experience of individuals was captured by researchers before the elders passed away and the town’s history was all but forgotten.

Long-time resident of Gee’s Bend, Edgar Mooney, recounted the importance of food sharing to the community’s “collective soul”, and how vital the taste of foods – the enjoyment of eating – were to both the mental and physical survival of those with few other comforts.

The inhabitants of Gee’s Bend associated their comfort to the freedom to be able to choose what to eat and to be empowered in feeding relations and friends.

From soul food to Community Shop

Today, in four communities, Community Shop operates to bring surplus food from the UK supply chain to families in deprived communities, selling it at deeply discounted rates and reinvesting the profit into individual and community development.

By diverting food away from landfill and reselling it in areas of high deprivation to those at risk of food poverty, we enable access to great food at discounted prices to those who need it most but can afford it least. We want that access to provide a strong scaffold so that people do not fall into crisis. Using the revenue we raise from food sales, we invest in the members we serve, helping those people to walk out of our shop months later as more confident citizens, connected to cohesive communities, and equipped to meet and succeed in life’s challenges.

Our approach is guided by the belief that you can’t build on broken, and instead we should focus not on what’s wrong, but on what’s strong. The lens through which we see the individuals and communities we serve focuses on what assets and strengths people have at their disposal. Connect those strengths together, and connect people together through food, and you have a powerful platform to build confident communities with the potential to create a great future for themselves.

Having started in Goldthorpe, a former South Yorkshire coal mining village with 8,500 residents, our second store had to be different in order to really test the concept and to see if our approach could succeed in a radically different context. So in West Norwood, London, home to around 330,000 residents and 86 different nationalities, we challenged ourselves to listen and learn again. The opening of our third store, located in Athersley in the South Yorkshire region, has been followed by the opening of our most recent store in Grimsby, with a plan to roll out others in the coming years.

Goldthorpe, Yorkshire

At Community Shop we have come to believe that an asset-based approach to food access offers the best option for a dignified, long-term positive impact. Our model comprises of three spaces: (1) a store offering deeply discounted food; (2) a learning and development hub and (3) a community kitchen and social eating space.

Community Kitchen is also a programme to support our members in revisiting their food journey, to dig out memories of the role food played in their childhood, when it created moments of awe and delight.

The latter, Community Kitchen, is a space in which our members can eat and socialise together. Our food mentor cooks breakfast and lunch every day so that people always have a reason to sit down together. Building a low-cost café offered members a spot to meet, share food together and create a space that reflected their vision for the community: welcoming, supportive and brimming with aspiration.

In Lambeth, South Yorkshire and Grimsby we also use Community Kitchen as a platform to dig down into the shared memory that communities once had and help them recover their relationship with food as a force for households and communities coming together to build themselves up. We recognise that each of our members have their own food journey, their own stories associated with great food, recipes which they have carried with them and an appreciation for food that they enjoy eating. It has become our aim to give our members the space and platform to examine their relationship with food, as well as their relationship with their community, and to have an opportunity to build on it. It has been shown that there is a link between high levels of social capital – coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit – and decreased odds of experiencing hunger.

West Norwood, Lambeth

Community Kitchen is also a programme to support our members in revisiting their food journey, to dig out memories of the role food played in their childhood, when it created moments of awe and delight. We take foraging walks together, starting to break free of the narrative that food must be on supermarket shelves for it to be valuable. We cook together, also introducing children to the cooking sessions, which are based on fun and socialising. When our members feel more confident we plan community meals and events together, bringing diverse groups of people into the kitchen to prepare menus that represent their community.

Recently, in one of our Melting Pot sessions (which bring together diverse people to plan and cook meals that represent their food stories) a 93-year-old woman, born and raised in the village, sat next to two Iraqi refugees. Recounting the foods she was brought up on, the elder talked about sheep’s head broth, a popular dish at the time because of the cheapness of the piece of meat. The two women listened to her with excitement. “This is our dish, too!” they responded, referencing the traditional Pacha dish from the region. They sat, exchanging recipes and tips, for the next hour, engrossed in learning about the differences and similarities of one another’s food cultures.

We underpin all of this work with a growing space, planting and harvesting seeds together that produce fresh food for Community Kitchen. Once people have travelled through the Community Kitchen programme, they are able to return as facilitators (food mentors) who use their confidence and enthusiasm to engage other members – usually neighbours and friends.

Community Shop sees a world where food is no longer a symbol of anxiety and financial hardship, but instead becomes representative of all that is good in life: family, health, community and joy. Building communities around food isn’t rocket science but it is more than pie-in-the-sky, and more nuanced than the lack of food. This is not to forget that the structural determinants of food poverty are likely to exist for many more years or to play down the crushing reality of these determinants. In order to have the will to eat well, you need to believe in the future. You have to believe it is a place of prosperity and worth. You have to believe that living and eating well is a mechanism for enjoying the best, longest life possible. In order to be motivated to do this you need to wake up and step out into a community, a world, which you believe is worth the investment because the future is worth living.

Our most powerful resistance is to stand together as confident communities, sharing meals, creating open places and spaces around food. In doing this, in reframing the narrative in this way, perhaps we can recognise the need to gather together around food and use it as a force to unbalance the long-term effects of food poverty in our lives and communities with hope, support and resilience, and begin rebuilding an inclusive food culture.

For more on food poverty try our insider feature on school “holiday hunger”.