Food security and food poverty as seen from Bristol


Richard Sheldon, Lecturer in Social and Economic History, reports on an event on food access and security held at the University of Bristol

The Trussell Trust charity has recently announced that it has seen demand for support from its food banks triple over the past year. Similar reports have recently been published by Bristol based food charities.  Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury equated the suffering of those who use food banks with that in Syria and the Ukraine, and an All-Party Parliamentary group has been launched to investigate the growing problem of hunger and food poverty in Britain.  All this lent a real interest, even urgency, to the proceedings of the recent Cabot Institute day seminar on the security of household food access in Bristol and beyond, organised by Patricia Lucas from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. How did we come to face such a predicament seventy years on from the Beveridge Report and the founding of the Welfare State? Should these circumstances even arise in what is the world’s sixth largest economy? What can scholars do to improve public debate on these issues?

The seminar attracted a wide range of participants ranging from academics to activists and scientists working on sustainable livestock. All were united by a concern with the problem of food security from the local to the global. Patricia Lucas introduced the day and the session on food welfare and food poverty. Eldin Fahmy reported some of the findings of the Poverty and Social Exclusion project, painting a gloomy picture about the impact of the long recession and state-imposed austerity measures on deprivation and social exclusion. Liz Dowler, University of Warwick and Hannah Lambie-Mumford, University of Sheffield came to the meeting hot off the train from presenting evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain to speak on food poverty and food charity. Kevin Morgan delivered a keynote lecture on securing a healthy diet: the personal, the political and the planning challenges

I attended the seminar as a social and economic historian hoping to learn from the sessions, but also to speak and attempt to underline the ways in which Bristol is a very useful place to stand in in order to understand the evolution of the production, distribution and consumption of modern foodstuffs. The origin of so many pressing global problems such as rapid population growth and global warming all stem from the period of the Industrial Revolution. Bristol was an early importer of foodstuffs from Europe and beyond beginning in the middle ages. The city and port also played an important role in importing and processing the modern luxuries of sugar and tobacco which helped ease the transition from an agrarian to an urban and industrial society. There were lots of sometimes surprising overlaps in all of our concerns and sometimes our concepts. The notion of food sovereignty was widely endorsed alongside the need to make food a central rather than an incidental part of health and education policy. In particular Kevin Morgan addressed ‘the public plate’ and closed by using the concept of a ‘moral economy’.

Michael Lee from Bristol’s School for Veterinary Sciences spoke about the development of ’the robust cow’  – an improved breed of cattle that would graze upon grass rather than be fed on grains. Xiajun Wang from the School of Economics, Finance and Management spoke about the management of the global food chain.

The day closed with participation from public office holders, activists and campaigners in Bristol. Gus Hoyt, Angela Raffle and Mark Goodway all discussed new initiatives in the city including the ‘Good Food Plan’ for Bristol and an initiative by the Matthew Tree charity to form a new supermarket run on ethical and sustainable lines in Knowle West, a Bristol suburb currently ill-served the large chains.

Much of the evidence presented, challenges posed, and conclusions drawn made for sombre reflection, but above all I was hugely lifted by the presence of so many articulate and informed voices all seeking to make a difference on stages from the local to the global. I hope we will be able to build on this beginning and take the project further through networking and future collaborations. The seminar lunch menu, comprising locally-sourced delicious produce, also made a pleasant change from the usual conference fare. There was such an exciting buzz around the proceedings that I am sure new initiatives will be forged and research partnerships launched.