Looking Beyond the Food Bank: An Interview with Simon Shaw

In recent years, a multitude of community-based initiatives have emerged in response to the growing demand for emergency food aid in the UK. The Trussell Trust Foodbank network has spread across the country; organisations such as FoodCycle and FareShare have diverted ‘surplus’ food towards community kitchens and social supermarkets on a major scale, and an impressive array of independent food aid projects have appeared in urban centres and remote villages alike. These charitable ventures are an increasingly familiar feature of society, and have come to be accepted by many people as an indispensable part of efforts to reduce hunger in a country where an estimated 8.4 million people are living in food insecure households. But some have argued that this is not enough, and that charities and communities must not be left to pick up the pieces in lieu of government action.

One such organisation is Sustain, an ‘alliance for better food and farming’ which campaigns to improve the fairness and sustainability of the food system for both producers and consumers. Recently, Sustain has been working with London boroughs to promote the prevention and alleviation of food poverty. They have published two annual reports,  Beyond The Food Bank, which outline measures that local authorities can take to tackle food poverty, and use these as a benchmark to assess the efficacy of their current activities. 

In April, I met up with Simon Shaw, who oversees Sustain’s food poverty campaigns, to find out more about their work. We also discussed the different roles that community groups, local authorities and national government could play in tackling food poverty; the potential merits of enshrining a ‘right to food’ into law, and the need to encourage a more healthy and sustainable approach to food in the UK.

Lewis Smith (L.S): Could you tell me a little bit about Sustain’s food poverty work and the ideas behind the ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ campaign?

Simon Shaw (S.S): Our food poverty work in London grew out of the work that we’d been doing for the Good Food for London report, which tries to make sure the food system in London is good and fair for everyone. In part, that’s about the production and procurement side of things – trying to ensure that animal welfare standards and Fairtrade are being promoted across the capital, but it’s also about the consumer, in the broadest sense of the word, and looking at whether everybody across the capital has access to good food. It got to a point where we realised that this latter issue is actually a very serious problem, and that we needed to do a separate bit of work around that.

So with ‘Beyond the Food Bank’, our aim is to push London councils to step up and do what they can to address food poverty and find sustainable solutions. We’re trying to look at how councils can make the most of their resources and their knowledge to help people and prevent them from having to turn to emergency food aid. For example, we work to promote Healthy Start, a voucher scheme that helps families on low incomes to access fresh fruit and veg. We think this is a really good government programme, but in London alone, £6 million of Healthy Start vouchers is being missed out on, and across the UK it’s a much bigger figure. We think this is an area where councils can have a clear supporting role – making sure that everyone who needs these vouchers can access them.

We also work on campaigns around ‘holiday hunger’ and supporting food provision during the school holidays, and promoting a proper, 21st century model of the meals on wheels service for older people and others that might benefit from having meals in their home. As partners of the End Hunger UK campaign and the UK Food Poverty Alliance, we also try and promote these campaigns on a national level, and try to push for more sustainable, long term solutions.

We do work with a number of food bank and surplus food redistribution organisations, and I think there will always be a role for community projects and community solidarity in terms of making sure everyone has access to good, healthy food. But our focus is very much on working towards a world where food bank use is much lower than it currently is. At Sustain, and in fact everybody involved with the UK Food Poverty Alliance, we are all unified in the belief that in the sixth richest country in the world, nobody should be going to food banks, definitely not on the kind of scale that they are currently doing.

L.S: So ‘Beyond the Food Bank’, then, is both a strategy and a goal for you? On the one hand, it means finding different ways to tackle food poverty – finding local authority responses instead of looking to community organisations to shoulder the burden; and on the other hand it’s a target in itself – a commitment to fundamentally reducing the dependence on food banks because you see their prevalence as symptomatic of a wider problem?

S.S: Yes. With a lot of the work that I’m doing at the moment at the London level, particularly with five boroughs that have been funded to develop food poverty action plans, there are different council departments, voluntary sector organisations, food banks and others all around the same table, and we all have the same belief: that people should not be in a situation where they’re having to resort to food aid packages. We all share that common objective, it’s just about pushing at different levers to make a positive change.

L.S: Could you give me an example of a real success story from your work with the Beyond the Food Bank project in London? Who is making big strides? I noticed that Lambeth were top of the ‘league table’ in the 2016 report – what are they doing well?

S.S: Lambeth council has got a long history of working on food issues, and they’ve developed a clear food poverty plan. What they’ve been particularly good at lately is using children’s centres as a way to support families at risk, using these to link in with the Healthy Start scheme and the UNICEF Baby Friendly programme, which promotes the benefits of breastfeeding. Boroughs like Lewisham have really bought into the idea of having a council-led, or at least council co-ordinated, response to food poverty. There are also boroughs like Kingston, which is more affluent than others, but is actually willing to be quite explicit about the fact that they have pockets of deprivation, and are putting in the resources to tackle that, for example by actively promoting the Healthy Start scheme.

L.S: Is there any evidence to show that food bank usage in London is actually decreasing in a significant way because of this work? 

S.S: It’s a good question. We’re expecting the latest figures from the Trussell Trust soon but I think we’re flat-lining to a certain extent [ed: the Trussell Trust figures have now been released and show an almost identical number of supplies were given out in London in 2016-17 (111,101) and the previous year (110,364)]. As I understand it, we’re not seeing a decline in terms of the Trussell Trust statistics and obviously these paint such a partial picture anyway. Talking to organisations around London at the moment, it’s clear that they’re continuing to see big demand for their services – community meals, cooking skills courses etc. And we’ve still got four in ten kids living in households in poverty, a fifth of jobs paying less than the living wage, really significant amounts of money going unclaimed in terms of Healthy Start vouchers.

Graphic from the 2016 Beyond the Food Bank Report

L.S: What more needs to be done to start seriously reducing this reliance on food banks and other forms of food aid?

S.S: One thing that I think would make a big difference is if the government was willing to measure the extent of household insecurity and food poverty in a robust way. There’s a gap at the moment and we really need the government to step up. The figures will be worrying, but we all need to know where we’re at and to accept that there is a real problem. Then, we need to have a more coherent plan around what can be changed at a national policy level to ensure that more households have access to food in a dignified, affordable way. That’s got to be a priority.

A lot of the drivers of food poverty go back to income, but there are also issues around availability and affordability of food in specific areas. Even if the government were to do more to raise people’s earnings and if more employers were to become living-wage accredited, we still need to think about the local environment and ensure that people have the opportunity to access fresh fruit and vegetables.

L.S: You’ve talked elsewhere about the need to ensure that those affected by policy decisions are involved in campaigning and influencing work. How does this tie in with this food poverty campaign? 

S.S: At the moment, my focus is on helping boroughs and those working with them to make sure that the voices of those affected by food poverty or at risk of food poverty are being taken into account. We advise them on how to interview, focus group or survey individuals themselves and also those working directly with them, such as those agencies that are making referrals to food banks. It is so important to make sure that those conversations are genuine and dignified and that people feel they can say as much as or as little as they want to about their own situation, that they know what’s going to happen with this information and that they will get feedback about how their contribution is going to shape local responses to food poverty.

In Greenwich they’ve been doing a lot of work around community engagement to ensure that they are actually meeting needs. As a result, they’ve established co-ops, for example, and in some cases are working directly out of children’s centres. But we would like to do a lot more work around genuinely giving people a voice to shape local responses and where possible be voices at a more national level, and that’s something that we are hoping to progress in the next few years through our Food Power programme.

L.S: Has the response to your decision to badge your food poverty work as ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ generally been positive?

S.S: It has. With ‘Beyond the Food Bank’, we do need to unpack it slightly to reassure food aid organisations because it could be taken that we are dismissing what they and a huge number of volunteers do. Actually, it’s about supporting them in their ambitions to make sure that people aren’t having to regularly come back to the food bank, because that’s not really how food banks should operate. And I think people running food banks and other food aid organisations do obviously want to address the underlying drivers behind people needing their services. There are really great examples of food banks working systematically with advice organisations, and actually a food bank which provides a very welcoming environment with someone who is very much on their side from an independent advice agency, can be really important, particularly because people can be quite mistrustful of talking to state agencies about their situation.

L.S: A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Trussell Trust’s new Regional Distribution Centre in Coventry. It’s an enormous, 25,000ft² warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of town, and the scale of the project, particularly in terms of the ambitions of the support networks they are trying to provide, was quite staggering. It was an incredibly rationalised, efficient operation… 

S.S: It’s interesting to hear about these developments, and obviously it’s important to try and be as efficient as possible. Our concern is that we’re still at a point where food banks could become a very normalised part of society, as they are in the US and Canada for example. We don’t think that’s where we as a society should be going. At the same time, of course, we obviously recognise the fact that people in crisis need food, today, and that need has to be met. If possible, the food they’re given should be as healthy and sustainable as possible, but we do recognise that sometimes there’s an urgent need.

L.S: How do we make sure that food banks don’t become normalised? What work is Sustain doing on this front? You mention in your latest report that you want to encourage people to look beyond the food bank… do you do any specific work around public engagement and attempting to change the tide on this front? 

S.S: We’re a supporting partner of the End Hunger UK campaign, which is really gearing up now after holding a six month ‘big conversation’ across local communities to build up a grassroots network and a bit of a movement. Now that it’s got these things in place, the campaign will be switching more towards public-facing and politician-facing work. This End Hunger campaign is going to be one of our main vehicles to engage with the public in this issue.

One challenge at the moment is that the public’s become quite engaged on the food waste issue, but we want to make sure that people are clear that reducing food waste and tackling food poverty are not the same thing. Both are important issues to tackle, but we can’t simply divert surplus food and hope to solve food poverty – it’s not that simple. I think we need to engage positively with these discussions and re-iterate that point where we can.

L.S: What are your thoughts on some of the ‘alternative retail’ models that have emerged recently, which often use ‘surplus food’ as part of a slightly different kind of response to food poverty? 

S.S: There was recently some coverage of a food pantry in Manchester that uses surplus food deliveries but in a more co-operative model – people pay a small amount for membership and get access to really cheap fresh fruit and veg. I think it’s potentially quite a good example of how you can manage these trade-offs between surplus food redistribution and maintaining people’s dignity and having a more normal experience by incorporating a small payment that people make and get a lot more for that money.

I think in general, the ambition to offer low cost, fresh food in community-based, alternative retail settings is positive. Every model takes a different approach in terms of what they do and don’t stock. We do have some concerns as an organisation if they are offering lots and lots of the most unhealthy food though. Personally, I think it’s important for people to have choice and to have a fairly normal shopping experience but actually, in my opinion you shouldn’t really be subsidizing the most unhealthy food within these schemes. There are diverse opinions on this issue, which I recognize, but I think we’d say that you don’t need to stock the unhealthiest food in order for people to have the choice to buy that stuff – it’s very, very widely available in most areas.

But still, I think it’s positive to see schemes that are genuinely trying to develop a longer-term, financially sustainable community-based response. Community Shop, for example, have a very clear programme of support for individuals. What’s good about some of these models is that they provide a lot more security than one or two visits to an emergency food aid provider because these people can engage – they know they’ve got a six-month membership or even an indefinite membership if it’s a more co-operative model – and that helps to reduce the stress and anxiety around food. And people then are in a much better place to trust those organisations, to access the support that’s available and to open up and support each other as well, so you can develop more of a sense of community. I know that in the Community Shop in London, the fresh fruit and veg fly off the shelves. It’s great that this can be made available at much lower cost.

L.S: I visited Community Shop’s West Norwood site a couple of months ago and remember seeing a mountain of strawberries by the entrance for about 20p per punnet…

S.S: Yeah, and I think that it makes a big difference to the choices that people have to make around food. Strawberries would otherwise be a treat, but when they’re much cheaper, people aren’t forced to choose between those and the basic meal. They’re able to take a risk as well, with foods that their kids might not have tried before. If you’re really squeezed, you can’t afford to try something new because if the kids won’t eat it then that’s a waste you can’t afford to make. So for organisations to offer that freedom – or to enable – that freedom, it’s really positive.

L.S: It sounds as if, at a time when there are some real issues around food choice in Britain (across all income brackets, geographies etc), there is the potential for community organisations and local authorities to use food poverty action programmes as a way to encourage slightly more sustainable and healthy approaches to food.

S.S: Yes, definitely. I think it’s important to say that just because someone’s in poverty, it doesn’t mean they should be preached at more than someone who’s got the income and can afford to make bad or worse choices. There’s a risk that you can stigmatize people – various politicians have said “if only poorer people knew how to make X or Y…” whereas actually, it’s not that simple and people on low incomes have to be extremely resourceful in managing finances and producing meals.

But anything that is trying to make sure that those more at risk are accessing a varied, fresh diet is really valuable, which is where things like Healthy Start schemes come in. If nothing else, we need to make sure that all food banks and food aid providers know exactly how Healthy Start works and how families can apply for it. It’s a really useful way for people to supplement ambient food such as tins and dried food, which is perhaps easier to get hold of elsewhere.

More generally, I think it’s important to build partnerships and to try and think very much about the whole food system rather than only looking at a single segment of it. Food poverty work can overlap with environmental and ethical approaches in lots of ways. One example is local markets, which can often be a lot more affordable for fresh produce, and Healthy Start vouchers can often be redeemed there. There are also different models for making locally grown food a part of food poverty initiatives and food education initiatives. These won’t necessarily provide enough food to meet need, but they will help to engage with people about what is grown locally and provide education where that is needed, particularly around making healthy meals. On Meals on Wheels, too, I think there’s some really interesting examples – in Plymouth and Hertfordshire for example – of local cooking and also local production of food which help to create local jobs and skills development, not just provide meals. Different schemes are making it work in different ways. For me, I think it’s really important that people have access to community gardens, to food growing, as part of a wider package of support which may be more about long term food poverty than emergency need. And I think it’s important that even the support they’re accessing on an emergency basis is embedded within the local community’s wider response to having good food for everybody.

L.S: How do you actually perceive the role of food itself? Is food just a facilitator for engagement, just a way to draw people in? There’s a lot of rhetoric at the moment around ‘more than food’, and the Beyond the Food Bank report talks about the need for a Meals on Wheels programme that is ‘more than meals’. But can food, or perhaps the practice of eating, be somehow essential in itself? 

S.S: For us, it’s definitely both. Food and food growing have massive value in terms of bringing people together, education, or perhaps helping people address specific issues such as mental health issues. There’s a growing agenda around social prescription and food growing. Food really is a convenor. When I was in Northern Ireland recently, I was learning about a street party based around a community meal, that had been really successful in bringing together some of the local protestant community with the Polish immigrant, predominantly Catholic community. Food brought those communities together and it sounds like it has genuinely brokered a better coexistence in that bit of Northern Ireland.

That said, there’s still the fact that a decent school meal, a decent hospital meal, a decent meal provided during the school holidays, has so much value. We know that in terms of kids going back to school after the summer holidays, if they’ve not had access to good, healthy food, they can be far behind their peers because of it. It’s bad for them but also really challenging for teachers to have to manage those different levels at the start of the school year. And, in terms of the other side of our work, we think it’s really important to make sure that the people who are producing the food are being treated fairly and paid a decent wage. We promote the real living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, and campaign for that to be adopted throughout the food system.

L.S: It was interesting to see this dual approach in the latest ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ report, with food-based initiatives sitting alongside concerns for wages and benefits in the measures you identify as ways to tackle food poverty.  

S.S: Yes, and we’re clear that the social security net is really important. With our work in London, we recognise that there’s a limited amount of control that the boroughs have over the majority of the welfare system, but on council tax, local welfare provisions and advice services, there are some really important things that can be done. We’re planning to highlight this in our 2017 report. With the ongoing squeezing of council budgets, they’re under a lot of pressure, but there are still real opportunities for them to do what they can with the welfare levers that they do have control over.

L.S: How does your advocacy work relate to national government on that level? 

S.S: I think we need to be very smart about how we try to influence welfare policy on a national level, and that’s partly while I think holiday food provision is an important issue. We want to see it as something similar to free school meals: the government should have a duty to respond. If these kids are at risk of going hungry or eating very unhealthily during term time, that doesn’t go away during the holidays. We think the government should be putting money in to ensure that holiday food provision is an entitlement for children at risk. The Welsh Government has shown leadership on this issue.

L.S: Is the notion of ‘right to food’ useful in this respect? In a sense, it seems like it would underpin a lot of the measures you call for, but would it add anything? Do you think it would help, in conversations with London boroughs or national campaigns or even public-facing work, to be able to call upon this notion of a ‘right’ to food? 

I think we need to be very smart about how we try to influence welfare policy on a national level, and that’s partly while I think holiday food provision is an important issue.

S.S: I think so. It’ll be interesting to see how things progress in Scotland, where this is being explored, and I think it would be interesting to explore what a ‘right to food’ could look like here in the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit landscape. If we did have a right to food in England and if councils were somehow required to respond to that, I think they would push back and generally want to know how they were going to be supported, particularly financially, to meet any duties that fell on them to meet these obligations. A right to food might also potentially encourage councils to step up and really take the initiative and not only do more, but also call out situations where that right to food is being denied through external circumstances, whether that’s government policy or low pay or how the food industry behaves in the local area.

In my experience of doing other kinds of advocacy work, calling for additional rights or entitlements requires you to think quite carefully about how you phrase things. You potentially have to nuance language or adapt it depending on different contexts. But I do actually see the strength of saying: “this should be a fundamental right”. Human rights in some ways have quite a bad press but actually when you talk to people about what human rights are and what they mean, there isn’t always the opposition that you think there might be. So we’re really keen to explore this idea of a right to food. The question is how palatable it will be in the current political climate at Westminster, or whether this is more of a slow burner.

L.S: Are you hopeful about the next few years? On the one hand, I find it really inspiring to hear about the fantastic work that is being done to address food poverty at the moment. Seeing work such as the Beyond the Food Bank campaign here in London, and seeing how various organisations are also linking this work to healthy eating campaigns and questions of ethics and environmental sustainability, it does seem as if a space has been created to have a conversation about what food means in the UK – how we can access food, how we can improve our relationships with, and systems of, food consumption and production in this country and beyond. On the other hand, it seems that a lot of the root causes of the issue are still being ignored on a national level, and in fact in some cases are actually being made worse, by pernicious government policies around welfare reform for example. So it seems like there’s a lot of great work going on at the moment, but that it’s having to swim against a very powerful current. 

S.S: I think you’re right. It can waver from day to day in terms of how optimistic you feel but it is really positive that communities, councils and their partners all over the country are stepping up, are not afraid to talk about the problems in their local area and are working together to develop interventions and supporting those that are already doing great work. One worry I have is that people are being pushed to innovate, whereas actually in some areas you don’t need to innovate, you just need to support and expand existing schemes or make these more sustainable. I think it’s really important that everyone tries their very best to evidence whose needs they are meeting and why, and to measure how effective their intervention has been and being really honest about what went well and what didn’t go so well. Then it’s about pushing that back to government. Around holiday food provision, there’s a real drive for organisations who are funding or providing food during the school holidays to evidence who is accessing that service and what the impact might be, so we can present that back to government and say: “this is a massive problem. We’re trying to meet this in the short term but the government needs to step up in the long term.” The more we can do that well, the better, because otherwise there is a real risk that the scale of the problem and the solutions won’t be picked up by the government and others.

There will always be a space for communities to deliver and respond to the needs of their local area, but ultimately it’s the government that a) should move away from policies driving food poverty and b) should step up and accept that it has an increased role to play in difficult circumstances, and that the prognosis for people at the lower end of the income spectrum is not good for the next few years. There’s the potential for rising food prices, wages aren’t necessarily going to increase at the rate they should; benefits for both those in and out of work are probably not going to increase at the rate they should. So I think it’s really important that we as a sector demonstrate exactly what’s happening on the ground as much as possible and ensure that it can’t be dismissed as easily as it has been in the past. The more evidence we have, the stronger we’ll be to push back and challenge government.

Note 1: Sustain’s ‘Beyond the Food Bank’ campaign is being funded by Trust for London, a charitable foundation that tries to tackle poverty and inequality in the capital.

Note 2: The cover image was taken by Mark Atkinson at Golborne Road market, which introduced Healthy Start earlier this year.