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A sense of control

Having power to make choices about what, where, when, how and with whom you eat

Community meal in Edinburgh

“Choice’ is bigger than what food is on offer, it’s about how and when to take part.” – Participant, Dignity Project peer support programme

Feeling a sense of control

This principle is about the power people have to make choices about what, where, when, how and with whom they eat. Community food providers should review the ways in which they empower people through choice and work with local partners to ensure people have a variety of options to access food – enabling food experiences that are culturally appropriate and dignified.

What this means

Community members explained that it was inherently undignified to have ‘no choice but to go to the food bank’ when in a crisis.

Adults in our society are typically able to make their own choices when it comes to food. When we have money, we can choose from a wide variety of options available at the shops, meet friends for a cup of tea or lunch at a café and socialise with friends and family over a meal without feeling embarrassed about not having enough to share with others. When people are not food insecure, they do not have to eat the same thing night after night if they do not want to. They can take into account taste, nutrition, dietary requirements, cultural traditions, where the food comes from and other considerations that are important to them when choosing what or where to eat.

The Dignity report states that “The most dignified system is one where people do not need to access emergency food aid but have the power and resources to choose what they eat”. In the current market-based food system, when people do not have cash at hand, most ordinary avenues to access food are suddenly closed. People experiencing acute poverty have few choices but to rely on charitable food aid, and access to community food initiatives, including provision of food aid, is patchy and insufficient in many areas.

Community food initiatives have an important role to play in restoring people’s sense of control over their own lives when most of that has already been taken away in a time of crisis. As part of a thriving local food economy, community initiatives can offer diverse and dignified options for buying, sharing, preparing and enjoying food.

“Councils should help us grow our own foods at home; they can give us seeds and growing bags instead of food parcels.” – Focus group participant

How lacking a sense of control can undermine dignity

Community members explained that it was inherently undignified to have ‘no choice but to go to the food bank’ when in a crisis.

Being on the receiving end of emergency food aid removes a person’s sense of control in many ways. Food banks rely heavily on the decisions and choices made by those who donate to them, for example through charity drives at schools, churches and in supermarkets, rather than those of people who will receive and eat the food. The contents of a food parcel are typically restricted to long shelf-life items with limited or no fresh foods.

Many food bank staff and volunteers work hard to adapt standard food parcels if someone has specific dietary requirements or limited cooking facilities. For example, volunteers might exchange a bag of rice for a bag of pasta if someone mentioned this, and many try to accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free requests if possible. However, the food bank model does not always enable staff and volunteers to take account of and respect people’s food choices. Parcels are often prepared from standardised lists (e.g. ‘Single person’, ‘Small family’), and people receiving food aid do not always feel confident or comfortable to request anything other than what they are given. In addition to these practical challenges, we also heard from some emergency food providers who thought people should be grateful for whatever they were given and were critical of anyone who left or discarded items they did not want.

Many community food initiatives establish relationships with local retailers and producers to source surplus food to use or redistribute through their projects. When these items are within their ‘best before date’ and of high quality, this can be a useful way for community groups to access food at low or no cost.

The use of surplus food in responses to food insecurity can undermine dignity if people taking part do not feel they have a choice to refuse food that is not of a high quality or in date. Whilst some people may choose to purchase and consume food beyond its best before or expiry date, no one should need to because of a lack of money or other options.

Some people may feel more comfortable attending a community meal than receiving a food parcel, though the former can still take away a sense of control if:

A three-day food parcel provided by a Trussell Trust Foodbank typically includes: Cereal, Soup, Pasta, Rice, Pasta sauce, Beans, Tinned meat, Tinned vegetables, Tea/coffee, Tinned fruit, Biscuits.

What community organisations can do

Community organisations are well placed to offer diverse and inclusive opportunities for people to access food when they do not have enough money to buy it through private sector options. Working with partners across the local area will enable community initiatives to respond more strategically to food insecurity by increasing the type and quality of food available to people, as well as the locations and ways they would choose to access food.

Increasing the places and spaces where people can choose to access food

Community food providers, including emergency food providers, can work with partner organisations to make food available where people already are or choose to go to. For example, ‘community larders’ – cupboards stocked with pantry staples – can be set up and maintained in supported accommodation for people who are temporarily without a home instead of them having to collect a food parcel at a food bank. Community centres, schools, nurseries, GP surgeries and advice centres can create ‘food-share’ tables, larders or ‘community fridges’ where anyone can help themselves to surplus foods from households, local retailers or community gardens. People taking food can have the option of giving a financial donation when they have the means to.

Community meals are another important way to ensure people experiencing food insecurity have a place they feel comfortable and welcome, where they can also enjoy a nourishing meal. Attending a weekly community meal or daily drop-in café may be how someone chooses to manage an experience of low or no income. As with other models, taking part in a community meal or other community food initiative should be a choice, rather than a necessity.

Community meals are not generally able to offer many menu choices, but they can try to cater for different cultural and dietary requirements, such as vegetarian and vegan options or using halal meat. The most inclusive and thriving community meals involve community members in setting the menus and cooking the food. One community initiative we visited supports a participant each week to purchase the ingredients and oversee the kitchen team in preparing food from their own cultural tradition – when meat is cooked, they always make sure there is a vegetarian option too. At another project, the weekly meal is cooked by community members, and every week those who shared in the meal decide on next week’s menu.

Increasing choice of affordable fruit and vegetables

Many community food providers are working hard to make fruit and veg and other basic foods more accessible locally, making sure people have options even within limited budgets. Several projects run ‘barras’ or stalls, selling affordable fresh foods in community centres and other places where people go in the local area. Others have started community shops or collective buying schemes.

Other community food organisations are supporting people to grow their own fruit, veg and herbs either in community growing spaces or in their own homes and gardens. This includes sharing skills and facilitating access to growing space, seeds, tools, pots and compost. Learning to grow food can enable people to feel a greater sense of control over their lives, as well as having access to fresh produce.