“You’re not being singled out as people needing charity. Everyone is here side by side – you don’t know why people are here.” – Focus group participant
This principle is about ensuring that people feel able and welcome to take part in different aspects of community life, regardless of their financial situation. Community organisations can work with partners to make nourishing food choices available in existing spaces and services or develop opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to access food at low or no cost.
This principle recognises there is a social value to food, and it is central to how we participate in community life. Not being able to afford enough food for yourself or your family has an effect not only on a person’s physical health but also their sense of social and emotional well-being. Food is at the centre of many social situations – sharing a cup of tea with a friend, celebrating the holidays, family birthday parties – as well as the less noticeable experiences of buying, preparing, sharing, eating (and hopefully enjoying) food every day. Experiencing food insecurity can therefore be socially isolating and undermine people’s ability to take part in community life.
Designing a service with an aim to feed people in need may mean projects focus on distributing food to as many people as possible without enabling people to spend time with one another, build relationships or share food together. Although food bank volunteers are often welcoming and friendly, the nature of distributing food parcels – designed for emergency situations – means that building longer term relationships is difficult. As one director of a food bank explained, the aim was to ‘get people in and out as quickly as possible’ to reduce the time spent in a stigmatising place.
People who have low or no income should be able to access and enjoy food in the same, ordinary places that people with secure incomes can. Part of realising this is about increasing access to inclusive places where people purchase, share and enjoy food – whether they are experiencing food insecurity or not. It is also about making sure that people with diverse backgrounds and needs can participate in community food initiatives, such as people with young children, disabled people, and people from different faith and cultural backgrounds.
Emergency food providers such as food banks and soup kitchens are often located in places that people do not ordinarily go, or feel good about going, and have very restricted opening hours. Reliance on charitable provision inadvertently segregates and separates out those experiencing food insecurity from those who do not, placing additional stigma on their situation. For example, a person may need to make their way to an unfamiliar church hall on a mid-week afternoon, passing by a sign stating that this is a ‘food bank’.
Even beyond the food bank walls, the food in standard emergency parcels is rarely the type of food that could be shared between friends. In some cases, providers write across the tins and packets of food with an aim to prevent people selling the food to others. This means that even when someone receives a packet of biscuits or tea that could be shared, they may still be prevented from enjoying this with others if they do not want someone to know they have been to a food bank.
Some emergency food aid is distributed in bags that are clearly charitable food parcels, for example in bright blue plastic bags. Carrying one, or many, of these bags in public can call attention to one’s circumstances and distinguishes the person from someone who has done their shopping in a local shop or supermarket.
Additionally, there are often practical burdens associated with designing parallel or segregated services for people who cannot afford to take part in community life. For example, if food is distributed in places where people do not normally go, those experiencing financial difficulties may be required to hire a taxi or take an expensive bus journey.
One particularly sensitive issue is whether and how people are asked to prove their eligibility in order to access and take part in a service. Community food providers are often operating with few resources, donated food and support of volunteers only. If ‘feeding people in need’ is the
aim of a project, this can make staff and volunteers feel a need to place clear restrictions on how resources are used and food is distributed. Considering how the project affects someone’s sense of dignity, however, asks community food providers to rethink eligibility criteria to understand who is included and who is excluded by assessment processes. Being able to access food with dignity includes feeling able to take part in community life, regardless of financial circumstances.
“Here no one knows you have no money or are hungry, you’re just a person in the community, not a ‘benefit scrounger’.” – Focus group participant
Community and voluntary organisations have a valuable role to play in enabling people to access nourishing and high quality food with dignity through a wide range of services and spaces.
A useful question to ask of any project is whether being or feeling food insecure is the main reason most people take part. If the answer is ‘yes’, it is important to consider how to redesign this project or build effective local partnerships to ensure that people experiencing food insecurity are not isolated from ordinary places and activities. If eligibility criteria are placing additional barriers to taking part in the project, and stigma on those who do, it is important to consider ways to reduce these barriers so that people can access support in more dignified ways.
It is not necessary to create parallel or separate services such as food banks or soup kitchens for people who cannot afford to take part in community life. Instead, community groups are well placed to build effective partnerships with local organisations and businesses to ensure food is accessible in a non-stigmatising way. Nourishing food can be made available throughout the community, in places where people from diverse backgrounds and experiences already are or choose and are able to go without stigma. This might be:
a healthy snack during all afterschool activities
a table of free food items at a busy community centre
a holiday lunch club for families with activities for the children
a weekly meal at an open and welcoming church, mosque,or other place of worship,
a low-cost shop, accessible to and used by everyone
a community garden that enables people to grow their own produce or share the produce from collective growing
cooking sessions with residents in supported accommodation to prepare a meal with donated or low cost food
a ‘meals on wheels’ service home-delivering nourishing meals to older people or people with limited mobility who may have difficulties reaching food provision, or to people in rural areas when travel distances are a barrier.