Dr Jane Midgley, Newcastle University, says the true extent of food insecurity in this country is being hidden by charities and other third sector organisations ‘filling in the gaps’ left by the state.
Food insecurity – lack of access to affordable and healthy food – has become a real issue for people from all walks of life, not just those traditionally seen as “in need”.
In many rural areas, for example, there is no fresh produce and poor transport links, making accessing food difficult, while in others the local stores are simply too expensive.
During her research Dr Midgley found local organisations providing food parcels for several weeks to vulnerable people who had just lost their jobs, to tide them over until their benefits came through.
One of her major concerns is that these organisations providing vital food ‘lifelines’ are often poorly funded, reliant on public donations, and could fold at any point – leaving the most vulnerable without a safety net.
“No one wants to consider the fact that we have people in this country who literally don’t know where their next meal will come from, but this is a reality for far too many people today,” said Dr Midgley, who will be speaking at the British Sociological Association’s food study group conference today (Monday 5 July 2010).
“These organisations are basically subsidising the state welfare system to ensure food security for households,” said Dr Midgley. “Many of these are not even set up to provide food but offer a meal such as a soup and roll to help engage people with their service. This vital activity, which for them may be a sideline, is not officially recognised.”
And with increasing pressures on existing benefits following the Government’s recent Emergency Budget, the ‘hidden’ food security problem is unlikely to improve unless the extent of the problem is acknowledged.
“The Government has emphasised greater localism by devolving decision making down to local government and local communities, which raises the possibility that household food insecurity and the access problems that involves will remain hidden, unacknowledged by local government and communities without resources to respond to local needs,” said Dr Midgley.
The Devolution and Localism Bill proposes to give new powers to communities to help save threatened local facilities and services and the right to bid to take over local state-run services accompanied by greater financial autonomy.
“Greater localism risks responsibility for reducing household food insecurity remaining outside the state with inequalities in experience, recognition and response potentially exacerbating the issue further,” said Dr Midgley.
She says the extent of the current household food security issue is largely hidden due to mammoth efforts by voluntary organisations to plug the gaps left by the state through providing access to food. This work is over and above those organisations set up specifically to feed people in times of crisis such as food banks and food kitchens.
Contrary to policy maker claims, these organisations say it is often a lack of physical access to food that causes problems for households and communities, not simply a lack of funds or cooking expertise.
Also, third sector coverage and support to communities is not equal across the country. Despite a known need in rural communities, many local organisations cannot afford to extend their services outside major urban areas or their immediate vicinity.
“What would happen if these organisations suddenly disappeared is a common concern,” said Dr Midgley. “Some of them – particularly those who respond to people in crisis with food parcels – are not secure and rely on public donations.
“Many of these organisations are helping to prevent the household situation from escalating, which in turn avoids placing further stress on public services. The problem with current funding streams is that it they have a short lifespan, with some food-related programmes coming to an end in two or three years.
“Food insecurity is not recognised as an area of need so is consequently not funded, but we have a situation where local government departments, such as social services, are sending clients to these organisations for help but there is no state funding available.”
The research is based on interviews carried out with 16 third sector organisations nationally and in the North East of England between October 2009 and February 2010.