Two food stories during the pandemic

During the past few months of lockdown, the forces of consumerism and food citizenship have collided and shifted more than ever. This has been particularly true for organisations focused on emergency food aid. They have been facing their own challenges when trying to shift from treating people as consumers, who receive a service and food parcel, to citizens, who are empowered to shape their food environment. So much can be learned on community resilience and food citizenship from the shifts we are observing now.

In July 2020, a group of organisations in Sheffield, whose aims include to support households experiencing food insecurity, gathered and shared how these past few months have been for them (spoiler alert: very intense!).

From a radical shift in the volunteering force, to new challenges accessing and distributing food, as well as trying to maintaining a sense of community when people cannot gather at the same time in the same space. These are just some of the shifts they have been experiencing (and check here for a deeper dive into these).

As people shared their stories, successes, failures, hopes and worries, some clear patterns started to emerge. What became apparent was that there are two major ways the story of food is told within each of their organisations, each one doing very different things to tackle issues of household food insecurity.

1. Food as sustenance

This feels like the dominant narrative, especially at a time when the country has come together to distribute food parcels to those most in need. So many amazing organisations are working tirelessly to feed the nation amidst the sudden increased demand for emergency food and reduced access to food, particularly in the early days of lockdown. In this context, food is an emergency response, a sustenance and a basic right. It is difficult to steer away from treating people as passive recipients (consumers devoid of dignity) within this framing. The sheer scale of this national operation, from big food bank networks to independent local community groups, is sobering. And the collective worry is how good we are becoming at this, potentially delaying the incentive to tackle root causes of household food insecurity.

Source: creative commons Flickr
2. Food as community

Anyone working within these organisations will have experienced the power of gathering around food to bring a community together. Food is a path to connection. When people come together, new (social) dynamics emerge. People can get to know one another, hear each other’s stories, support one another, signpost to important resources, make each other feel like they belong. But it is not without its challenges. And at a time where emotions are particularly raw, emotional support and wellbeing are at least as important as sustenance. This is where food citizenship can grow. As we create a food environment that connects people and empowers them to participate within their local communities, we build resilience. Why? Because a community that connects and empowers its citizens creates dynamics that allows for quick adaptation and innovation in times of crisis.

What now?

In the context of household food insecurity, both food as sustenance and as community have a key role to play and can complement one another. While the system still fails people, ‘food as emergency’ gets the job done as much as possible while the system catches up. Meanwhile, ‘food as community’ is planting the seed for a new system, so that in time the emergency response to food insecurity will no longer be needed. And the reality is that both stories intermingle constantly. As food communities, it is worth asking ourselves where, when, and how we talk about food. Is food the goal or the medium? The more we untangle these two stories, the more effective our actions will be for each.

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