Finding dignity in food poverty
Food poverty is recognised by the Government of Ireland as the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability or accessibility. As part of their Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, the Government has committed to reducing the number of those living in constant poverty to 2% or lower by next year, 2025. This effort is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015 the UN outlined 17 SDGs as part of their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Second on the list behind ‘zero poverty’ sits the objective to achieve ‘zero hunger’. The goal is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agricultural practices in all UN member states.
At present there are no official food insecurity and inequality indicators in Ireland.
However answers to the annual Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) run by the Central Statistics Office use the following questions to gain an insight into the condition in Ireland. Agreeing with one or more of these statements is an indication of being in or at risk of food insecurity:
Unable to afford a meal with meat, or vegetarian equivalent, every second day
Unable to afford a weekly roast dinner (or vegetarian equivalent)
Missing one substantial meal in the last fortnight due to lack of money
13.1% of people were at risk of poverty in 2021, up 1.5% on the previous year according to recent findings. In relation to food, 1.4% of the roughly 12,000 sampled were at risk of food deprivation, equivalent to over 70,000 people when referring to the total population. In a report entitled Constructing a Food Poverty Indicator for Ireland using the Survey on Income and Living Conditions from 2012, Carney and Maître proposed adding a fourth category:
Inability to have family or friends for a meal or drink once a month
In the face of deprivation this may seem frivolous but serves to represent the social aspect of food. Sharing meals is often culturally important and fosters connection among family and friends.
The lack of robust and specific data pertaining to food poverty continues to pose a disservice and disadvantage to the people of Ireland who remain unrepresented in their hardship to acquire adequate quantities and food of quality for themselves and their families. The SILC was not created to specifically measure food poverty and therefore is an inadequate metric on which to base our understanding of the situation in Ireland today.
Image: Kuarmungadd, Getty Images Pro.
The sample cohort is chosen through a rigorous statistical structure, however, it is only applicable to those in traditional living situations – owner occupied and rental homes. This excludes members of the Travelling Community, asylum seekers living in direct provision and the homeless. This could mean that the figures provided by the SILC are somewhat lower than the real number of people facing food poverty in the country today.
How does one navigate food poverty?
In accordance with the Roadmap, there are a number of ongoing Government incentives to reduce the impact of food poverty such as: free lunch schemes in schools, a school milk programme, promotion of nutritional education via schools and libraries, and funding to Meals on Wheels programmes around the country among many others.
Food banks are also in operation around the country and serve as a main source of for the assistance of the physical acquisition of food. The Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin is often highlighted as a main source of food assistance during the winter period. It recently saw over 3,000 people queuing for food vouchers over the Christmas period. Crosscare, a registered charity, is the largest supplier of stock for food banks in Ireland providing food to the St. Vincent de Paul, Focus Ireland and the Simon Community as well as having its own distribution centres.
In Ireland the most common type of food help is provided via pre-made food parcels containing the necessities and staples. While this model is endlessly helpful and life saving, often the element of choice is eliminated. Due to funding and organisational structures pre-made food parcels are advantageous and easier to co-ordinate especially on a larger scale. The move of the Capuchin Day Centre to give out Supervalu vouchers this year instead of pre-made hampers grants service users the agency to buy what they want and need most. This element of choice is integral to the provision of dignity as the families are given ownership over their food habits.
There is benefit in change and innovation which is not confined to technology but can expand to how we view and address social issues. The Mid-West Simon Community is currently in the process of creating a Social Grocery store in Limerick, the first of its kind in the country and will hopefully spur other such enterprises. It will offer a traditional ‘shop-style’ shopping experience to service users with groceries sold at a heavily discounted price. The initiative is set to open this year in 2024, however, little information is available regarding its current progress.
‘Shop-style’ food banks are in operation in other parts of the world. In Golden, BC, Canada the access to their food bank is not means tested, as many support services are in Ireland but based on personal interpretation of need. Depending on their family size the service users are given limits on what they can take, this is mainly for dairy products, meat, eggs and some vegetables depending on abundance. Some categories are unlimited. The shop stocks a range of fresh vegetables from their community garden, fresh milk and dairy products donated by the two local supermarkets, as well as hygiene products, baby food and animal food. The food bank is supported partly by funding from Food Banks Canada, a government run organisation. This support allows them to buy in bulk staples such as porridge, pasta and tinned tomatoes.
The freedom of choice that is available to the service users is immense and noteworthy, meaning clients are able to deliberate, choose what they want to eat and give no mind to price. The food is of a high quality and offers vegetarian and vegan alternatives too. Parents come in with their children, allowing for the familiar experience of food shopping as a family. The food bank also offers a lending library for kitchen gadgets like food mixers or canning equipment – free of charge.
The potential for this sort of enterprise in Ireland is abundant especially in our rural towns where community gardens could be utilised. With sufficient governmental assistance and support to secure a premises, a model such as this could be possible in Ireland. The possibility to restore choice and the social aspect of food shopping will not go unnoticed. The supermarket or local shop is a place of meeting and connection; for some it’s a reason to leave the house. A Social Grocery such as the one proposed in Limerick could help to remove the stigma associated with food poverty and restore dignity and agency among those facing food insecurity.
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