A long hot summer in West Wales, with the tourists loving the sunshine and the farmers suffering from severe lack of water and grass. The brown land has now turned green again but the state of the weather further contributed to debates and concerns about the future of the farming industry in west Wales after Brexit.
What’s happening to food poverty in this area currently? During my stay of more than four months this summer, I visited several food banks (some more than once) and interviewed staff and volunteers, as well as seeing the new Community Fridges in two towns in Pembrokeshire and interviewing people in the organisation which has set them up. In addition, I talked to a wide range of people and read the local newspapers, focusing particularly on issues like Brexit, the Welsh Assembly and its policies. In addition, I have tried to keep abreast of the national scene via newsletters and websites (e.g. Trussell Trust and IFAN – Independent Food Aid Network).
There are quite a few changes happening, some welcome, some less so.
Predictably, demand for food aid has risen sharply here in west Wales, especially in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced. Organisations which help the food poor are awaiting September with dread, as that is when the roll-out of this new benefit system is likely to be completed in this area. The Trussell Trust has endorsed a hard-hitting report on the problems of Universal Credit carried out by the End Hunger campaign (http://www.edf.org.uk/end-hunger-uk-report-fix-universal-credit/), and other charities and campaigns, like Oxfam and IFAN, have also agreed with its findings.
All food banks now access food supplies to give out not only through donations from the public collected at supermarkets but also through the Fareshare Food Cloud system. This was set up in 2015 (http://fareshare.org.uk/fareshare-foodcloud-in-tesco-stores/ ) in a partnership with Tesco but other supermarkets such as Waitrose have now joined in. The other system of redistributing surplus food is called Neighbourly (www.neighbourly.com), originally started by Mark and Spencer. The result of these initiatives is that food banks can usually offer at least some fresh food like fruit and vegetables on a ‘help yourself’ basis, although this tends to be rather hit and miss, and most managers complain that they get more bread than anything else.
Trussell and Fareshare have recently received a large grant from Asda (owned by Walmart) and plan to expand considerably their ability to ensure that a reliable supply of fresh food is available in many more food banks (https://www.trusselltrust.org/2018/02/09/new-partnership-fareshare-asda/). This move has been welcomed by some but heavily criticised by others, including IFAN, on the grounds that, as has already happened in the USA, the links between the food aid movement and the food industry are becoming ever closer, while the reasons for food poverty are still not being addressed (http://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/asda-response).
Indeed, at the beginning of this month, it was revealed that the Westminster government has drawn up plans to carry out its own research on the reasons why people need to go to food banks (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/01/revealed-ministers-plan-to-research-effect-of-policies-on-food-bank-use), even though there is already a plethora of data by both academics and organisations involved in this field, much of which has been dismissed by government ministers.
Sadly, the excellent Transition Bro Gwaun cafe, which used locally-sourced surplus food to serve meals at very reasonable prices, closed down; this was not because it lacked customers but because the building was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme. TBG is currently putting some energy into a Community Fridge project, and fridges have now appeared in both Fishguard and Narberth ( https://transitionbrogwaun.org.uk/future-transition-cafe/) and early reports suggest that they are being heavily used.
At the beginning of the summer I was invited by the Manager of an independent food bank to share ideas on good practice in food banks. As a result of our discussions, she consulted her own volunteers and they came up with some ideas of their own, including having a simple feed-back form to give to clients. Another idea was to have someone who had either been a client or a volunteer – or both – to attend trustee meetings as a representative of both categories. Both of these moves give greater voice to clients and contribute to the push for greater ‘dignity’ in the food aid arena, a notion which has been led by organisations in Scotland such as Menu for Change. A third suggestion was to have photos and names of all volunteers up on the wall, thereby giving greater equivalence to helpers and clients, whose names and details are always demanded.
In another set of food banks, I learned that a new service is being offered, that of Community Connectors, who visit regularly and offer clients help in connecting with other organisations which
may give practical advice or reduce loneliness by putting them in touch with groups and activities (https://pavs.org.uk/about/Backgroundinformation.docx). This is an important move not only towards helping with the complex problems from which many food bank clients suffer, but also seeing food poverty in a wider social context.
In the autumn there are several important food poverty conferences coming up and also the reading of a Bill in Parliament to oblige the government to measure food poverty on the grounds that ‘if we can measure it, we can fix it’ (https://www.foodethicscouncil.org/our-work/end-hunger-uk-big-conversation-on-ending-food-poverty/supporting-the-call-to-measure-hidden-hunger.html).