I struggle to think of an image more moving than a group of people breaking and sharing bread with one another. It might be my quasi-Christian upbringing that’s given me a particular attachment to this idyllic tableau, but my sentiments are not unique: food – a common religious image – has also been a leitmotif in portraits of secular utopias. Food fuels not only our bodies, but our fantasies and our anxieties too. The idea that food holds inherent political symbolism is not new.
Though we are now fed a steady diet of scientific data and nutritional facts, our daily consumption of food is still shrouded in mystique, as mysterious as it is mundane. As a result of mass production, food has become excessively conceptualised, which has complicated its status beyond that of “essential product”. Eating is no longer just about fuelling our bodies; there is now an abundance of socio-economic subtext. This was epitomized by Whole Foods’ ludicrous “Asparagus Water”— two asparagus spears soaking in a small water bottle – which caused a stir when it retailed at a cool $5.99.
But it goes much further. Food deserts: areas devoid of good-quality and affordable foods (areas which often overlap with those inhabited by people on the lower end of the income spectrum) typify how notions of ‘proper nourishment’ gate-keep health ideals, which are (increasingly) becoming only attainable to high-earners. These communities are typically rife with fast-food joints and small corner shops, which precipitate the incidence of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other related illnesses in these neighbourhoods.
Whole Foods "Asparagus Water " on sale for $5.99. Credit: CBS News
Though food deserts are a global problem, the UK’s figures are particularly bleak. A 2018 study by the University of Sheffield concluded that around 1.2 million UK residents live in food deserts and that a tenth of the country’s most economically deprived areas qualify as such. Supermarkets tend to be built in affluent neighbourhoods, where residents have bigger spending power. Economically disadvantaged individuals are, then, forced to commute to these wealthier areas to find items like fresh fruit, vegetables and unprocessed foods. And for the 41% of UK households in food deserts who do not own a car, commuting to buy food may present a conundrum: for many, paying the transport fare to reach the supermarket means skipping a meal.
Credit: The Guardian; Kellogg's
Even so, just eating according to the UK’s Eatwell health guidelines is projected to cost the country’s poorest families 74% of their disposable income. It’s clear then, that, at the root, food insecurity is not only an accessibility problem but a penury problem. When faced with a decision between perishable, fresh food or long-lasting tinned or processed foods, buyers on a financial tightrope are going to opt for the latter. A third of respondents from the University of Sheffield UK food desert survey claimed that money was the largest deterrent to eating healthily. UK incomes have decreased by 7.1% between 2002 and 2016; food prices have increased by 7.7%.
The number of food insecure adults has more than doubled under Covid-19. The advent of Brexit is also rightfully a cause for concern: The Food Foundation predicts it will catalyse a further 4% rise in food costs, turning nourishing food into even more of a pipe dream. The marriage of the current pandemic with Brexit’s repercussions could deal a devastating blow to the 16% of adults in the UK experiencing food insecurity.
Though the number food banks has exploded during this period, UK studies have shown that many remain reluctant to use them due to feelings of shame. To them, turning to food banks spells out a personal failure, underwritten by the meritocratic mythos underlying personal success nowadays. In a society dictated by meritocratic ideals, where ideas of “winners” and “losers” are fetishised, the latter tend to feel their dependence and alienation is a product of personal fault, which fuels a festering cycle of shame and resentment.
It’s time we reckon with the wide-spread romanticisation of the “independent go-getter” and endeavour to recognise that oftentimes the situations people find themselves in are merit-independent and largely due to pure chance. (A 2014 Pew report found that 39% of Americans believed that people were poor due to lack of effort). If we are going to fight food insecurity, we need to recognise the poisonous stigma we’ve affixed onto poverty, actively voice our indignation against measures taken by the government and mould a vision guided by the urgency of human decency and restoration of human dignity.
A good place to begin would be restoring agency to those affected by food insecurity. The government’s move in January to substitute a food voucher with a sad collection of wilted foodstuffs points to a general distrust of those in need and their ability to be resourceful and ingenious with the means they are provided with. This initiative was offensive and grossly misleading.
It is crucial now more than ever to be compassionate and aware: to initiate conversation, educate ourselves and others and donate to the right causes. As Jacques Diouf, ex-director general of the United Nations’ FAO, once said: “The right to food is the right of every fellow human to live in dignity”. We do not need to imagine utopias to give everyone a seat at the table. A simple drive to restore empathy and foster understanding should ultimately make us want to say “I love you. I want us both to eat well.” (Christopher Citro).
Food Insecurity Resources
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