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Let's talk about food poverty - transcript

This is the safefood  podcast.

Aileen: Hello and welcome to the safefood Nutrition podcast. I'm Doctor Aileen McGloin, Director of Marketing and Communications at safefood, the all-island agency promoting food safety and healthy eating.

In this podcast series, we will be talking to leading experts and patients about issues like obesity, food poverty, sustainability and health in the media.

Today we look at food poverty: how we talk about it to the public, within the healthcare community and with those that may face this challenge every day. We ask what we can do to enhance our understanding of food poverty and how we can improve supports for those who need them.

I’m happy to be joined by Kitty Holland who is the social affairs correspondent for The Irish Times, winner of the 2012 National Journalist of the Year and author of Savita: The Tragedy That Shook A Nation.

I'm also joined by Dr Megan Blake, senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. Megan is the creator of Food Ladders – a community scale intervention aimed at building local resilience by reducing vulnerability.

You're listening to the safefood  podcast.

I'm going to start with a question for both of you. Could I just ask you to give your insights into what food poverty means for those who are experiencing it? And I might start with you, Megan.

Megan: Okay, I actually prefer the term food insecurity because it's more than just food. It's not having access to food or struggling to access food is really stressful for people. It's not just about not having it, it's about not being able to make decisions about it, not being able to secure the healthy food for your family that you want to secure, that we all want to secure for our family.

And for people who are struggling this way, there's the issue around how their relationship with food itself suffers, how their diets become narrow because buying good, healthy food is too risky for them. Worry about things going off, so there's a constant kind of tension around the relationship with food.

But it's also more than that. One of the people that I have loved to go talk to said one time to me, if you've not got money for food, you've not got money to socialise. So it can also be really, really isolating. And of course when your social networks break down, then in times like this, you've not got people to go call on to support you, to go to the shops for you and so forth.

So, for me, food insecurity is much bigger than just not being able to cook a meal that's healthy. It's all those other things around of it.

Aileen: And Kitty, do you have any other experiences you want to bring in there?

Kitty: I'd agree obviously with Megan, that it's much more than just about food and not having enough of it, or enough nutritious food, access to it. In my experience, it's one of a range of issues. And I suppose the food insecurity or food poverty sort of exacerbates and feeds into those issues.

And, obviously, if you can't access nutritious - adequate amount of adequately nutritious food - yes, your whole relationship with food becomes quite depressing and stressful and demoralising. And I think for parents in particular with children, there's a sense of failure and shame. And of all the kinds of aspects of poverty, I think, it's probably the most hidden and most insidious, the most pernicious and the one that people are least likely to believe actually exists, because if you have access to food and also then have access to things like a social life to eating out, you've got the money to do all those nice things, you sort of can't believe that food poverty exists because you go, well, I make a meal for four or five people for five euro. Yeah, but try doing that every single bloody day of your life and it just becomes such a, yeah. I think almost a hate relationship with food starts to develop. And I think that's where it gets really sort of a part of your mental health and your identity and everything gets ground down by it.

Aileen: It's interesting that  you say people find it hard to believe that people experience food poverty in this way. You know, that's something we've come across before. And particularly because we live in a relatively wealthy country.

So why is this? Are there any other reasons why people struggle with this idea of food poverty existing? You know, sometimes you hear in the media, oh, exactly what you said. Could you not just, anybody could produce a meal for a few euros. But that's not the case.

Kitty: Well, yeah I mean, as you say, and Ireland is regarded as perhaps one of the most food secure nations in the world. What it is, it's all those other things like early school leaving. I just give one example of a mother I interviewed in Cherry Orchard and she was a single mother of six children. She herself had left school early at about 13 or 14. So she obviously didn't have access to an education, which then gives you access to things like experiences, like traveling, like taking risks with food, trying out food, so different foods.

And she talked about, first of all, the fact that she'd left school really young. She was a single mother with six children, which brings its own stresses. And I suppose the mental health issues and coping with that and coping with her own poverty and coping with her own loneliness. Add to that a very low income. She was dependent on a one-parent family allowance. So she then had something like 250 euro after she paid for her rent and her bills to feed six of them. And she couldn't take risks with food. She couldn't risk there being any waste. She had to eat cooked food that she knew the children would eat.

So there was no like, let's try a chicken tagine tonight, or let's try a chick pea couscous thing tonight because it could all end up in the bin. Couldn't take that risk. So it had to be pizzas, chicken nuggets, spaghetti bolognese was a cheap meal, she would make it about once a week.

So it was boring, it was monotonous. The children were bored of the food. So they often threw it back at her and said, they didn't want to eat it. She dreaded things like one of the children deciding they want to eat healthy 'cause that might mean she was going to have to buy brown bread and you know brown bread is more expensive than white bread.

And so she spoke then about how she - and I was just comparing it to myself, how when I'm thinking about cooking a meal, I think about what we have and I'm going to try this new recipe and we'll go like, I enjoy cooking, I enjoy buying food. I enjoy thinking about the food - she dreaded all about, she hated cooking. She hated thinking about the meals, she hated going and buying the meals because she was trying to make the money stretch. She was dependent on food banks. So the whole thing just is, becomes this, I suppose, overwhelming, embarrassing, shaming. She just didn't - she, I mean, thankfully she talked to me about it, but she hated to talk about food and the whole world of it.

And that gets in on you. And it gets in on the kids and it gets in on every part of their lives. And that's the kind of, I suppose, food poverty people just don't understand because it's as I said earlier, it's easy enough to say, sure, I could make a meal for five euro for five people if I put my mind to it, be kind of fun to try and do that. But try doing it every day, every single day with no respite for all your life. And that's food poverty.

Megan: Absolutely, grinds people down completely. 

And the other thing that happens is that people who are living in these conditions, living in places where there also are less likely to be a shop that sells stuff that you need for healthy eating. So even if they wanted to increase the fruit and veg uptake in their diet, it's just not available in a place where they live, in the shops where they live because there's no market for it. There's no big demand for it.

I've talked to people and their children who don't know what grapes are because they've never had them. And why would you, they're really risky food and they're expensive and they go off quickly.

So you're just going to cut out things out of your diet that you can't freeze. If you buy it on Monday, it still needs to be as good as it can be on Friday otherwise it's just, it becomes waste. And that's just not, there's no space for that. The other thing is the cost, the food budget at the end of the month also includes the transportation budget.

And so it's certainly much more expensive for people who live in these sort of food desert locations to even access. It's the five quid or five euros, your meal is five euros but then it costs you that much to get to the shop to buy the food. Which you know, so this cheap meal, all of a sudden becomes much more expensive and there's no flex in budget.

So it's not like you can buy a big bag of something and put some of it in the refrigerator for later. You have to spend money on the food that you're going to eat right now and hope that it will last throughout the week or you go shopping on a daily basis because you know that you secured a meal for that day and nobody's going to eat tomorrow's food today.

So the balancing is quite amazing what people do. I'm always so impressed at the budgeting and the ways in which people navigate and negotiate. But the bigger problem is there isn't adequate support in the places where they live, there's not sufficient safety net. The food that's available to them, low quality food is the cheap food, as opposed to the stuff that people should be eating. And we need to find ways to support people to be able to access that better quality food within the budgets that they have.

Aileen: Kitty, from your experience in the media, do you think that the idea of food poverty and food insecurity is handled well? I mean, language and perception are incredibly important here. Can you give us some insights there?

Kitty: Well, I mean, you suppose you don't very often hear from people experiencing food poverty or food insecurity. I mean, I think food poverty is covered in terms of there's reports, or safefood  will bring out a report, or the Congress of Trade Unions will bring out a report. So it is covered. But again, I think it's covered as a sort of almost shocking thing that people just can't quite get their heads around.

And I suppose it is difficult to get people to talk about it because as I said it is perhaps the most hidden and demoralising end of poverty that people don't like to talk with.

I mean, people go and interview people I suppose, at sort of soup kitchens and Brother Kevin Crowley's place on Bow Street. So that's the really sharp end of it. That's people actually queuing up for a free meal. And the numbers are increasing all the time and the types of people there, going all the time, so there's people that were children and mothers going when their children are at school, so that the children don't know that they're going to get the free meals so that they can keep the food budget for the kids so there's those kinds of things.

But I think actually getting to talk to someone, but people in their home, going through their budget and really talking to people about the kind of nitty gritty granular details of what food poverty actually feels like to live, very rarely happens. And in fact, I've only done it three times ever in my 20 plus year career in journalism. And only one of those mothers was willing to go on the record and talk about it.

So I think it's a very difficult subject to get at ,and I suppose people need to, journalists need to sort of read up about it a bit so that they're not being too prurient with the people when they're talking about it and being shocked and horrified, because one point I think is quite important is that it doesn't affect all people living in poor areas.

There are people who are better able or better equipped or have better mental health or whatever to navigate that in a way that it doesn't feel like real depressing, grinding you down food poverty. I'll just give one example again, the next door neighbor to that mother I interviewed in Cherry Orchard was another mother and she just had so much more kind of optimism about her. Now she only had two daughters, so it was less of I suppose, a stressful environment to be in, there was fewer people in the household, but she was quite upbeat about managing it. And I think she learned how to cook from her mother and how to budget from her mother in a way that maybe this other woman hadn't.

One thing she said to me was, my mother always said, if you have a tray of eggs and a bag of potatoes, you'll always have a dinner. And she said they were the two things you always bought 'cause you could make omelettes and things like that. And she was just much more just open, upbeat about life in general.

Whereas next door, this other woman was clearly really, really depressed and lonely and isolated. And ground down by other things as well as the food issue. But the food issue, I suppose, is three times a day every day, and is more difficult to cope with.

Aileen: And Kitty in your experience of interviewing them, you've said it's limited and that's the experience but have you been able to do anything to protect the dignity of the interviewee when you're speaking to them?

Kitty: Well I suppose, I mean, one thing I often say, which journalists aren't really meant to, is when I'm dealing with people, is that if they want to read the piece before it's published, they can read it, just because I feel they’re vulnerable people, and I do interview a lot of vulnerable people, that they have to have a sense of control over the way they are, they're not going to be exploited by another person coming into their house and mess them around or enter their lives and mess them around.

So I always offer that, it's not always taken up but always offer that. I suppose, to be honest, I would always kind of take a very conversational approach because I've been broke in my time. I've been that person going at the supermarket, 'cause I'm a single mother myself, with the calculator, making sure I don't go over 60 euro that week because I'm at the end of the month.

So I empathise if I can with them, I can never obviously empathise with the totality of their lives but I'll try and chat to them a bit about, kind of getting that what they might be going through and trying to convey that to them and build up a sort of trust and rapport like that.

But I think, yeah, the most important thing is that you let people feel that and let people know that they have a degree of control over how they're going to be portrayed. I think that's really important and that they can be anonymous, that they don't have to bare all for the public.

Aileen: And, I suppose, from your experience, would you give any advice to people like our listeners who are working in policy community promotional bodies? What can they do to combat these kinds of misperceptions and raise awareness, from speaking to people experiencing food insecurity?

Kitty: Well, I suppose to keep publicising it and keep talking about it and to lobby government and to show that it's real.

And, I mean, data's really important and the numbers who are coming to food banks and going to the food kitchens. I mean the amount of food that has been given for free and the demand for it which is just spiralling at the moment, speaks for itself. I mean, you just can't deny that and to encourage people not to judge and to take a step back and see how difficult it is. It's combating the judgment and the stigma, I think is the real battle and to say that this is real and it's not that surprising when you actually start looking at what's going on in people's lives.

Aileen: Yes, hugely, hugely important. I'm going to come back to you now, Megan. You're the creator of Food Ladders and that focuses on shared practices. So could you tell us a little bit about this approach?

Megan: Sure, so the approach really is an asset-based approach. It looks for positive stories and seeks to find ways to reconnect people with the food that they want to eat. To enable them to move up a ladder of support. So it acknowledges that people need catching. People are hungry now and we need to feed them now. But it also puts in that intermediate step between absolute desperation at the bottom and then the commercial categories where people can go and shop. That gap is huge for people and kind of introduces a budget-stretching notion in the middle and that's surrounded by capacity-building kinds of activities. So things to help people with the issues that they see as needing help with in their local communities.

That's kind of a hyper-local approach. It's about addressing the loneliness and isolation issues, about reconnecting communities, about creating places where people want to live and want to grow old and want to raise their children, where they have neighbors that they can interact with. So it includes things like social eating activities. It includes things like the sort of social supermarkets or the lower-cost interventions that are longer term and that help people stretch their budgets. And then, just provide some of that background. When you give people an opportunity, we need the food banks but we need to move people off of them. And they're needed to give people a pause and a resting place but once people kind of get back on their feet, you can kind of help them along the way.

And so that's really what it's about. And it's based on research in communities where this is going on. So it's not like I invented it and just, I looked at what people were doing and kind of put it into that framework.

We're using it now, quite interestingly, here in England and in Manchester in particular, to kind of structure the COVID support. So we're signposting people to the right kind of support for them. So people who are struggling financially are being directed toward the pantries or the social supermarkets, rather than getting free food and people who can afford to buy food are then directed to supermarkets and other kinds of support if it's an access issue. So if they're suffering from COVID kind of things. And then signposting to that wrap-around support. The council is facilitating that and connecting people. It's not doing it for people because each community has its own, they know what their needs are. They know what the needs are in the particular place. And to tailor that locally is really important.

The research was based to some extent on the community shop model. I spent a lot of time with them but also in small community organisations that kind of provide a hub and saw what worked in those places. So that's really what it's, that's really what it was. It's about connecting and advancing community, to make them resilient and to enable people to have the confidence or to rebuild the confidence to be able to propose things for themselves and take them forward.

Aileen: Those kinds of structures are enormously important. Do you think that positive languages, building a safe environment, all these, I suppose, other aspects are really important as well?

Megan: Absolutely, because one of the places that I've spent quite a bit of time is a little community in Doncaster. It's hugely deprived. For years it has been that place that everybody points to as the problem. People described families as being feral, which is a horrible, horrible language. And that's what they become, that becomes their entire identity to the outside world.

But when you go and spend time in this community, they're fantastic, they're doing fantastic support things for each other in ways that really are enhancing. Breakfast clubs, where the moms come in and they all work together to support the kids to do the reading before school starts, brushing each other's hair and making toast for each other and providing that sort of support network.

So yeah, language matters hugely. I think it's really important not to define people and communities wholly by their financial situation because there's a lot more contextual stuff that helps to create that situation. It's not individual. There is a lot of contextual stuff and those people have assets that they can bring to bear on their situation. But they've been told for so many years that they don't, that recognising them can be quite important, or acknowledging and recognising that. So yeah, language.

When I go hang out in these places and I do a lot of hanging out with people, you have regular conversations and you don't necessarily, it's important to acknowledge the struggle but also acknowledge the great, important things that they're doing because it does give them, it does give people confidence when they realise that they can and are succeeding in really important ways. So yeah, language is really, it really matters hugely.

And also, I think one of the issues that I'll have with the food poverty lingo is that a lot of people don't see themselves as in poverty, they see themselves as struggling, and we can all relate to struggle. Whereas certainly other people can't relate to being in poverty because they've never experienced that, but everybody has struggled at some point. So that's sort of more inclusive language seems to be very important.

I did a workshop with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation around their language framing that they use which is fantastic. And one of the things that they talk about also, is it's important to build those connections that travel across. And talking about fairness, while we might think fairness is important, people take that into themselves, it's like, well, I work 25 hours a week or 50 hours a week feeding my family and doing all these things, why can't these people do that too? 'Cause fairness is kind of individual but when you talk about justness, it's all right.

It's not right, we are a wealthy country, it's not right that we have people in our country who cannot feed themselves. It's not right that we have children who don't access food. That language worked so much better to bring people into the discussion, and they changed their mind about the situation 'cause it's no longer about me versus you and what I do versus what you do, but it's a bigger, it's that collective right and what's right and what's moral. It's that sense of collective values.

So the language that engages with that sense of collective value is really important to use but also acknowledging really good things that people can and do do in their spaces. So they're not all just defined by poverty.

Aileen: Megan, when you were doing your work, did you find any barriers to reaching the most vulnerable people in those communities? Was that part of the challenge?

Megan: I think maybe the biggest barrier for me is the not wanting to embarrass somebody, and to go in and say, hi, I am here studying your state of being.

So I tend not to define or describe or create projects that way. I don't start with households. I start with community organisations and I go hang out in them. I spend time in them and I go talk to the people who are working in them and then kind of then extends to the volunteers and you're talking to the volunteers and by that time the trust relationships and then you have these casual conversations.

So my method is more one of hanging out and then it gets deeper. And then I have the longer conversations with individuals. It's terribly difficult to ask those kind of very sad, difficult questions. People will tell you but you get a lot more out of it if they know you before. So I guess it's about building rapport and it's yeah, it's about really building rapport and also helping them to see, and I also tend to focus on things that are positive again with them, highlight the positive things.

So there's a notion I'm not going to go in there and do a poverty street television kind of thing with them that makes them look bad. So I defined my projects differently. I think then I go in with a different view.

Aileen: Megan, if you had one request to a minister for health, what would you ask him or her to do about food poverty?

Megan: My one request, I would’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I would argue for a system's approach to addressing it. So I would push for changes to the benefit system that are creating hardship and prolonging it for people.

In the UK, we spend about 18 billion pounds a year in the NHS addressing issues of diet-related, poor health and loneliness-related issues. We know people who have good, strong social networks live better with the health conditions that they have. They're more resilient. Communities are more resilient.

So I would, I think providing adequate income an adequate safety net, is really important. I would also encourage the ministers to support fruit and veg access in low-income spaces. And we have a project called FRESH street which is an area-based voucher scheme, where the vouchers go to small-scale, local fruit and veg providers to help create that market and sustain it, because the commercial doesn't work if you haven't got consumers.

So there are ways of doing that through national infrastructures to social prescribing kind of mechanisms, through local authorities and so forth, that help people experiment with fruit and veg and things like that. And so that's kind of what I would encourage those sorts of things.

And I would encourage more support for community organisations because they help deal with these issues and repair the damage that's been done by neoliberalism over many, many years.

Aileen: It's interesting that you mentioned social prescribing. We do have another podcast on that. So I'll just highlight that to our listeners.

I'm going to ask you the same question, Kitty if you don't mind, if you had a moment with the minister what would you ask for in relation to food insecurity?

Kitty: Well, I suppose there's two approaches. I would either ask for a meeting with all the other ministers as well, like housing and education and finance. And I would look for a universal basic income, free childcare and education from 10-months old up to the end of third level, and secure affordable housing for everyone 'cause I think that's the basics that you need to be able to start working on the really insidious issue of food insecurity.

But if there was one step, I think it would be a warm, hot nutritious meal for every child from the age of three up to 16 or 17, through the summer holidays as well. And not based on income so that there's no stigma, it's an investment in children and it's investment in everything from their concentration in school to their dental health, to their mental health, to their relationship with food. And I think that would be very doable.

Aileen: And one last question, is there any piece of research, a film, story, art, a book anything that has particularly influenced your thinking on this, Kitty?

Kitty: Well I suppose, oh gosh, what was the name of it? "I, Daniel Blake", that movie about the universal credit in Britain and how the systems and the structures and decisions made at political level and the way in which they're implemented can have such a damaging impact on people's lives and deaths. I think it's a really important movie that every politician and policymaker in this area should watch because it's so true. Ken Loach, "I, Daniel Blake".

Aileen: And the same question to you, Megan.

Megan: In terms of influencing, well, certainly that film is a really important one. I think there's some very fantastic people on Twitter actually, who talk about their experiences. And those are certainly really important and revealing. And it's amazing how open and they get a lot of kickback from people about just how open they are. And those folk, that group of people, has been really important for my thinking. There's a woman who lives in Leeds who tweets regularly about her experience of having to go to food banks, but then that journey and she's been really inspiring and humanising in that sense. So I would say that she's a really important influence for me.

Aileen: May I ask her name?

Megan: Her name is Millie. She used to have a Twitter handle called, I was a food bank mom. There are several people. I'm a benefits claimant or I was a benefits claimant is another one. There's a chap in Scotland called Euan Gur who writes a short articles for newspaper and he does these short, what it's like to be living in these conditions and the experiences. And he individualises, but over the course of these tweets that he has, one each day, you get the extent of it, 'cause it's another story each day more and more and more. He used to run a food bank and has moved away from that now and is campaigning a lot more.

So he is one of the people, Millie is another one and then also Jack Monroe and her story of how she struggled and her absolute commitment for providing recipes that are low cost and healthy. Really low cost to support people and her support of the food banks that she had to rely on. And she's also great because you can see she's come out the other side of it all. And there's a kind of a hopeful story there as well.

So I would say those three people have really been probably influential for me.

Aileen: We look up their details and include that information then on the podcast information link as well.

Megan: Great.

Aileen: So the only thing left for me to do is thank you both so much for contributing today. You've given us some really powerful insights into food insecurity. So thank you so much, really, really appreciate this.

Megan: Thank you for having us.

Kitty: Thank you.

Aileen: I'm Aileen McGloin and I want to thank once again our guests, Kitty and Megan for sharing their knowledge and experience. Thanks to you for tuning in. I'm pleased, do get in touch and send us your questions or thoughts to [email protected].

We've heard some powerful insights into food insecurity. If you want to hear more from us, search safefood podcasts, wherever you get your podcasts and please sign up to the All-island Food Poverty Network newsletter on

You can also join in the conversation on Twitter @safefoodnetwork and follow us on LinkedIn.

Until the next time then, goodbye and take care.

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