Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Living in a food desert......

There's so much talk about food deserts but mainly we hear it from large, deprived areas of cities in the US and there's often some debate about whether they exist here in the UK. Inevitably the situation is not as dire here as our cities are smaller, and it would be rare to have to drive for half an hour to buy an apple in a city, although in areas in the countryside not so rare. However I'm going to talk cities as that's my experience and where I'm working.
Any city, as Bristol does, that has 16 working food banks, obviously has people living in crisis and food poverty. However, food poverty isn't just related to food deserts and, sadly, with access to food banks being quite difficult to attain, it's also questionable as to whether everyone in food poverty can even get to that food when needed. Far from it for me to criticise the food banks as they do amazing work, but the system to get to that food is long and complicated, usually including doctors and/or social services, which often is uncomfortable or even impossible for people due to personal circumstances. 
People are often very surprised to hear of food banks in Bristol. With its reputation as a foodie city, and its status in 2015 as European Green Capital, its reputation is somewhat different to its reality. For sure Bristol is full of amazing restaurants and has an abundance of community supported agriculture projects, city farms and community gardens, but it also has areas where people struggle to access fresh and most importantly affordable food for themselves and their families. Little did I know when I moved out of the city centre, that this would be something I would find out about first hand.
Where I live, in South Bristol, unless you have a car, which I don't as I don't drive, the closest supermarket other than the convenience store at the garage or the corner shop that sells sugary snacks and noodles in pots but not a pint of milk, is over 2 miles away. For sure there are buses, but buses no longer have the place to put your shopping at the front, as it's been utilised for free newspapers, so it's really important only to carry onto the bus the amount you can hold within your seat area. The buses in our area are really well used and are often packed so more than 3/4 bags is impossible, and in reality 2 bags for life is your limit. I've seen drivers refuse people entry to the bus with more. 
For me this is hard. I want a diet full of fresh, locally grown where possible, food that's good for me. The reality of the supermarkets that are accessible by bus most easily is that they are fairly small stores and their range is limited. A lot of the food isn't ingredients, but ready meals, pizzas, and their vegetarian options are limited to say the very least! 
Fizzy pop, crisps, biscuits, pastries and cakes are given far, far more space than fruit, veg or fresh meat and fish, with all the offers on snacks rather than good food. But of course I have options and choice, and although it means being more organised, I am lucky that I can fairly easily access the Bristol food scene that we all know of, and that with an allotment and garden I can grow a lot of our food myself.
But what about those people with limited choices, or no choice at all? What about parents juggling jobs, often with unsociable hours, and often more than 2 in order to pay the bills? What about families with no car? Or even with a car, but with several jobs that car always being out with the working parent? What about single parents struggling on one income? All these people are time poor as well as living somewhere that has been designed as a dormer suburb, with little thought to the logistics of life. Over and again I attend community consultations about food where I hear the clear message that what the community wants is a supermarket. And over and over I see middle class choice not understanding need. For sure community shops, box schemes and deliveries from local suppliers are wonderful but for many they are just not affordable, or what they want. Many of us take for granted the ease of a supermarket, or the expectation of having weekends and evenings free, but for many families this just isn't the case.
I have an understanding of this, as my husband is a prison officer who specialises in mental health and suicide prevention in a hectic women's prison. He works long hours, and does a job where he can't just leave when it's his allotted time. He also works every other weekend. Due to his work, for obvious reasons, we don't live too close to his workplace, so he has to take the car as public transport simply doesn't exist. Family life for us has always meant juggling his work commitments around everything else that has to be done. Easy when you live in a small town with two supermarkets and nigh on impossible when you don't.
So what is the answer? Well the answer is design. The answer is to stop building housing estates without thinking about food provision and stopping the expectation that everyone has  use of a car to visit out of town supermarkets. 
But what's also  important is finding communities that are struggling and empowering them to help themselves by creating positivity around the issues and looking at exciting, engaging ways to get people to look at how they connect with food.
But, and here's the crux of the point, whilst our government is happy to give control of our food provision to the supermarkets, effectively giving them a green light to behave in any way they want, it is going to be people power that changes things. Generally food deserts in the UK appear because the big guns know that people will have to visit them, however hard it is to do so, because there is no option and once in through the doors, their clever marketing has you in its hold. We need to demand that this changes, through both urban planning, local and national government but most importantly through people power.....
And with that ladies and gentlemen, I say...... 
'Watch this space'

Guerilla gardening or good use of a lost poiece of land?


  1. Interesting post. I'm currently an ambassador for The Crunch ( an initiative running this year set up by The Wellcome Trust to explore Our Food, Our Health and Our Planet.) This is just the sort of pertinent issue that I think it's important to get people thinking about. More power to your elbow and if you've not yet come across the initiative, the link is (Apologies if you are already involved/know about it - just struck me that your thoughts are just what they're after). Best wishes, Nic Wilson

    1. Thanks Nic-I hadn't heard of that but will take a look and gladly speak to them if they might like!!

  2. Great - I've got a day in Cambridge at the end of the month to learn more about it, so I'll let you know if anything interesting comes up. I'm planning to do events with the local Beavers, school and our community garden to get people talking about the future of food and growing your own.

  3. What you write is so true. I'm in the fortunate position of having the time (I'm retired) the money and the car to feed myself well, but I'm conscious that this is getting more unusual. There is a line of shops within walking distance of us, but the greengrocer has gone, the bakery has gone and the butcher has gone - all in the last couple of years - and they have been replaced by beauty salons!!

    1. Same here Mark-our row of what were proper shops are now all either charity shops or corner shops selling "food" rather than food!!