We all have something to offer

Food citizenship is about exchange.

As consumers, our value is measured on our financial contributions. Yet as citizens, our value is acknowledged in much more diverse ways. A supermarket facilitates an exchange (food vs money), but do we really want to reduce people’s value to an economic one alone? What other exchanges can and do happen around food?  Money has its place but so do the spaces, tools, knowledge, experiences, and contacts we have. These are some of the many valuable assets we each bring to our communities.

A fundamental belief of food citizenship is that everyone has something to contribute to the community.

In hard times, it is easy to spot all the things that are going wrong and identify what is missing. This deficit mindset allows us to understand which gaps need to be filled. In the context of household food insecurity, a lot of energy and dialogue is spent trying to patch holes and fill gaps to meet emergency needs (e.g. food parcels, cash-first, health support). This is important work and crucial to ensure that no one is left behind. However, it is only half the picture. This deficit mindset can also create a narrative that says communities and individuals don’t have anything to contribute themselves, further entrenching the stigma of receiving support of any kind.

An asset-based mindset focuses on what skills, resources and ideas are already present in the community. Not only does this allow us to reframe the identity of our communities and citizens, from having needs to having assets, but it can also generate positive conversations and ideas on how to move forward.    

There are a few methods out there for this approach:

  •  The Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is one of them. It aims to connect individuals, organisations and institutions with those that have the strengths and skills each need, from within the community. As they say, “in community development you cannot do anything with people’s needs, only their assets.
  • Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in India is another inspiring example of an asset-based approach to community development and resilience.  The barefoot movement is redefining professionalism and showing that anyone can teach, and anyone can learn, because we all have something to share with others. In fact, Roy says that at the Barefoot College, “the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher.” What is taught is what people know, and the curriculum is as varied as the individuals.
What can we do as individuals and organisations working with our communities?
  1. Map our skills and assets

This can be done through semi-structured interviews of our community members, by simply asking things like:

  • Who do you know in your local community that is doing something interesting? (identifying ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ and local activities)
  • What are your hobbies? (identifying skills and interests)
  • Where do you work/volunteer? What does your day consist of? (identifying skills and experience)
  • Where do you like hanging out or where do you normally meet? Are there any outdoor spaces near you? (identifying spaces)
  • Who do you often chat to as part of your work and social life? (identifying networks and contacts)

It is best if these questions are asked by someone from the community itself or someone who has a longstanding relationship with a community. We conducted these interviews 1-1 with 5 individuals in Autumn 2020, which lasted between 30 minutes and 1 hour. The result was over 15 pages of skills and assets, which everyone got access to, leading to conversations about how more collaborations could occur. The whole exercise may take about 10-15 hours of time for a local group like this.

2. Act as a hub for coordinated food citizen action

Whatever work we do, it is powerful to remind people of what their actions bring to the community.

Working with community food organisations, we find that even when food parcels are handed out, there is a big difference between framing it as handout, a gift, or a powerful act to fight food waste.

In order to make our community members’ contribution to society more explicit, it helps to verbalise what the purpose of our organisations is.

The New Citizenship Project’s Purposeful Participation encourages us to think about what we are trying to do in the world that’s so big, we need more people – and more diverse people – to help us do it? Can we define our purpose as a question (e.g. How can we achieve X by working with Y? How can we encourage social activities by working with our local residents?)?

So what is the purpose of our own organisations? Is it to distribute food aid to bring the community together, to encourage mutual aid, to tackle food waste? 

What we encourage or achieve in our community will be different whether we ask “how can we feed as many people as possible by working with supermarkets?” or “how can we build community resilience working with our local residents?”

We may be collecting a food parcel at our local community centre, but we also interact with others, we can provide a listening ear, we can share a bit of news, we can make each other feel less lonely, we can find out about other groups or networks, we can participate in other activities that are happening there or that we may ourselves be able to lead. This social web, this connection and exchange, is a key ingredient for resilience.