Authors: Dr Leda Blackwood & Fran Baber (University of Bath)
When you think of Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES), perhaps what springs to mind is graceful Georgian architecture, Bath Rugby matches, healing waters and spas, summer festivals, and Somerset cider. But, like all regions in the UK, there are health inequalities and poverty in Bath city and the surrounding towns and villages, and people across B&NES are facing the same challenges of rising living costs and food and fuel insecurity.
In 2021, through their Public Health team, B&NES Council commissioned the University of Bath to conduct research to understand local experiences of food insecurity, and how community organisations are providing support. Our research findings have informed the Council’s updated Food Equity Action Plan for 2022-2025.
We interviewed community members and staff and volunteers from community organisations within the B&NES Affordable Food Network. We also ran two community events with local residents and organisations to share our research findings and discuss priorities for tackling food insecurity in B&NES. The full report of this research can be found here.
Similar to research conducted elsewhere in the UK, our key findings included:
Rising costs, low wages and benefits, and unstable jobs are driving food insecurity in B&NES. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to food and despite increased demand, several food support services had to close or limit their operations. Some organisations and charities responded by setting up new food-related services and supporting communities to help each other.
Community members value fresh, healthy, organic food, but find this unaffordable and difficult to access. Residents in Bath city centre struggle to access low-cost supermarkets, and rural communities also report limited choice of affordable shops. For rural towns and villages, transport links are poor or non-existent, and some residents are forced to travel long distances to source food. For those with mobility issues or special dietary and cultural needs, the obstacles are considerable.
“The saddest thing is that it’s the fresh food that is the most expensive, so eating healthy which is what we want to do is actually very, very expensive.” [Community member]
People described using many of the strategies we see advocated in the media, such as shopping for bargains, batch cooking and using freezers, seeking help from friends or family, and accessing food support services. But these strategies are not available to all and they have their limits – having a roof over one’s head, some steady income and resources, good mental health, and being socially and digitally connected make the successful use of these strategies more likely. Of course, not having many of these things goes hand in hand with food insecurity.
“If you haven’t got food, you’re not able to do things like you were doing so you get more depressed, and I guess it’s a circle.” [Community member]
One of the main barriers to accessing food support is shame and embarrassment. Struggling to afford food can feel like a personal ‘failure’ and people often feel judged and humiliated because of stigma around poverty and food banks.
“I was crying because I didn’t want to be doing it, there’s a lot of stigma stuff […] I was crying and I was like – I didn’t feel good about myself that I couldn’t afford to eat.” [Community member]
To address this, community organisations try to provide a welcoming, friendly environment where people’s preferences are respected. For many, their local food support service was a ‘lifeline’ in times of crisis.
“We work really hard to make people feel comfortable. We’ll meet people outside if they’re really nervous about coming in. We’ll ask them what they need to make this a good experience for them.” [Food support worker]
Finally, community members and organisations in B&NES are calling for change. People feel strongly about addressing inequality and poverty, improving food-related education, and tackling the unsustainable food system. Given the rising costs of living, community organisations want to identify areas of unmet need and reach people before they reach crisis. To do this, they need better resources and more joined-up working across services.
Based on our findings from the interviews and events, we provided B&NES Council with five priority areas to move forwards in building sustainable solutions to food insecurity.
Supporting people’s use of strategies through:
- Developing knowledge and skills about food in the context of limited money and resources.
- Improving local transport links to ensure they work for people with financial and mobility issues.
- Improving communication about where and how to access affordable food – specifically addressing digital and social exclusion and supporting people’s motivation to engage with services.
Identify and address unmet need across B&NES through:
- A clearer understanding of who isn’t accessing affordable food and why – specifically groups who may be vulnerable, marginalised or socially/digitally excluded (e.g., older people, homeless, ethnic minorities).
- A clearer understanding of geographical areas of need – looking at food deserts and specific living situations (e.g., cities, towns, villages, private/rented homes, supported living, residential/nursing homes etc.)
- Developing models to connect people with affordable food and improve communication with communities in need.
Support community organisations to deliver nutritious, affordable food through:
- More sustainable, joined up working across B&NES and neighbouring authorities.
- More holistic approaches which link people with other services.
- Sharing good practice around dignity and respect and engaging with community members about what they want.
Improve nutritional value and diversity of affordable food available in B&NES:
- Involve all parts of the food system (supermarkets, support services and end users) in strategy development.
- Support more sustainable partnerships between local businesses, farms, allotments and support services.
B&NES Council to take leadership on being allies and advocates for people experiencing food insecurity by:
- Advocating for improved wages and stronger safety nets.
- Challenging narratives and systems that blame, shame, and contribute to social exclusion.
- Educating the wider community about what food insecurity is, what drives it, and what needs to change.
- Ensuring voices of people with lived experience are embedded in decision making and strategy development.