Food poverty trancript
Hello, and welcome to the safefood nutrition podcast. I'm Dr. Aileen McGloin, Director of Marketing and Communications at safefood, the all-island agency promoting food safety and healthy eating. On this podcast, we talk about nutrition issues like obesity, food poverty, sustainability and health in the media.
Today, we look at food poverty, and the cost of a minimum food basket on the island of Ireland. I'm delighted to be joined by Dr. Bernadette McMahon, director of the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, and Robert Thornton, who works with her as a Senior Research and Policy Officer. They are the researchers behind safefood ’s report on the cost of a healthy food basket on the island of Ireland.
You're both very welcome to the podcast. A question, to start, for both of you. Would you mind telling our listeners about the Vincentian Partnerships for Social Justice and how you are both involved?
Bernadette: I'm the Director of the Vincentian Partnerships for Social Justice. And in a few minutes, I'll tell you about MESL work and how that started and pass on to Robert.
Robert: I'm the Senior Policy and Research Officer with the Partnership. And my work is around the central standard of living research, which we're going to be talking about. I've been doing that work now for 10 years.
Aileen: Brilliant. Bernadette, you have been working in the area of social justice and poverty for decades now. Can you explain a little bit about the work that you do?
Bernadette: Well the Partnership began in 1995. So I won't go into the whole history of that, but when we began we would actually work on active citizenship, to encourage people in disadvantaged areas to use their voice as their vote, because they don't vote. And we were working with a group of women in Cherry Orchard, who are very active citizens who are also struggling with poverty. And we were talking about the national budget, how the budget is constructed and how it is divided, the national budget. And two of the women said, one of them said, first of all, you know, if only somebody would tell the policymakers and the government what it’s like to live on social welfare, and the national minimum wage. And two others said no, you know, we would prefer that somebody would tell the government for people need to live with dignity, to be able to make ends meet, and to have a life with dignity.
And that was a huge challenge to us, because that came from their heart and one of our values is listening to people and trying to respond to requests. So the first study we did actually was we worked 116 households that were dependent on social welfare and the national minimum wage. I'm not going to say very much about that apart from the fact that I might refer to it later on in connection with food poverty. But anyway, we said there's not much point in spending time on what people can't live on. So let's now switch to and try and establish evidence based data of what they could live on to have a minimum standard of living.
So we started that work in 2001/2002. And, because we got in touch with the family budget unit in New York, we began with low cost but acceptable budget standards for four household types. And this was the beginning of actually providing data on different budget areas.
There are about 14 to 16 areas of expenditure that every household engages in, including food. And you start off, it's a bottom up approach, you go to the people who are experiencing that particular standard of living, but not all experiencing poverty because we don't want a poverty line. We want people of, you know, say two parents two children, that type of family, but mixed socially and economically. So we started off that in 2004. And then we moved again to 2006. And we did it for six household types. And we began to use consensus with budget standards and methodology, which is a combination of the work of the Family Budgeting Unit in New York and also the University of Loughborough. So it's very much working with people and using a very deliberative focus group, discussion group approach with groups to establish what people really need at a minimum for a socially acceptable level. And all decisions are reached by consensus.
And we've we've continued that work and now we've got data on 90% of the households in Ireland. But it's been taking us a long time to get there because that particular work is very time consuming and detailed. And when we began that work, right back in 2001, people thought was a great idea. And I remember saying, well if it's a great idea why aren’t we doing it, but of course, I know now why we weren’t doing it because it is so detailed. And now we have identified over 2000 items that every family needs. And also, you know, not only just the items but where you buy those items, and also the lifespan of those items. And an important element of those would be the food budget.
And we're very actually, I was and so was Robert, was a work of a man called John Veit-Wilson. And he's dead now, but he was a professor in the University of Newcastle, and he had some, four, very good points, you also important to us policymakers. This question, ‘acceptable’, you know, or ‘adequate’ for whom? For different kinds people, or people like ourselves, you know? For a subsistence standard of living or standard of living that meets the basic needs? And then who decides, you know, who decides actually what, what is adequate for another group of people? And then the question was for how long. So we have stayed with that, because, and we believe that we’ve the bottom-up approach, as many countries do now when you're doing the use of consensual budget standards. And then when I mentioned earlier on, we began the work, you know, on the One Long Struggle, that was the first piece of work out on what it's like to live in social welfare. And what was it like? We found that they were nearly always in debt.
But one of the sad things when we began to do another piece of work in 2018, for the Vincent De Paul society on what was life like for people whose income does not allow them to have a minimum standard of living?
Now, we said, it’s minimum, meets the physical, psychological, and social needs for a socially acceptable level. And when we came to the food budget, it was very, I was really very sad, because I worked with the ladies back in, you know 1999, or 2001. And now working with people in similar situations, in 2018, the reality of food poverty was there very much. And actually, the impact of it hadn't changed, and the coping strategies. But it was so very sad to see just the hardship, the social implications, the health implications, the impact, again. So that was actually how we began the work. And while we're not specialists at all in food poverty, but actually working with the focus groups, what are the elements that go into a healthy food purchase. And then usually based on the menus, you know, we worked out with focus groups the menus for every day during the week. And we did that for a week.
I should also say about the consensual budget standards, because people think that focus groups are like sitting around having a cup of tea. They’re not, you know! So for every household type that you work with, to get a budget you have different focus groups, and they never meet. So there's a whole refinement as you take the elements and refine them going from one group to the other. So that was how we started off. Now what we’re looking for is food insecurity, and it’s the inability to consistently be able to afford and access food which is needed to maintain a good health and well being.
Aileen: Bernadette, you just mentioned food poverty, and the effects of food poverty there earlier. And that's the focus of this podcast. So would you just outline a little bit more, in more detail, what the effects of food poverty are for people?
Bernadette: A recent study in England found of course that obviously, food poverty affects people in different ways. And for different reasons. And what they also found was for a large number of people, it really was the basis of a decision to actively cut back on food, because they didn't have enough income to cover all of the other expenses for the household. And then secondly, there were people in food poverty, because something happened, something went wrong, you know, the family car broke down, or the oven broke down, or the kettle broke down.
The impact first would be, first of all, that, you know, obviously your income, the more income you have, the more money you have for your actual food budget. And the less income, the less you have to spend on food. So unfortunately, food is a certain discretion. You have no discretion on the rent, you've no discretion on other items, but you do have on food.
And that was really the main thing we saw again, that it is actually the purchase of food that suffers as soon as there’s income poverty coming into the house, and the greater the gap between income and what people needed, the greater impact on the actual expenditure on food. We saw actually then, and for both periods, that it is really, when there is food poverty, really, the emphasis really is on, you know, safeguarding the children. It was a huge commitment of parents to ensure that their children have got nutritious diet. So it's the parents, initially, the cut back will be on the parents. You know, one mother who, in particular, in Ireland, who she ate with the family on Sunday and Monday and Saturday, but after that she didn't. And Thursday it would be just a tea, bread and butter for her.
Now, and another impact would be the lack of variety. So the children, you know, would say, ‘Mommy, can't we have something different?’ It was also the impact of the children towards the end of the week would go to the fridge, and it would be empty. And also another impact would be that there would be insufficient, for example, protein in the diet. And also the social element, for example, you know, the children wouldn't have a birthday party. And that's why the DEIS schools are so popular in Ireland, because at primary level, they have a birthday party in the school, and the school provides the birthday cake, and the family might provide, you know, something extra, so the social element of food. And that has an impact on people's sense of well being.
And another impact would be that the parents are so anxious, particularly the mothers because once again, they’re doing the cooking mostly, would be a sense of guilt, you know, that I can't provide my children with a nutritious diet, I can't provide what food like other children in the class might have. And the worry about the health, and also the worry about not being able to return hospitality.
And also buying cheaper cuts of meat. You know, most meat was, actually for many household types on a very tight budget, would be mincemeat, you know, and then when the money was very, very tight, what they said was, ‘I have to pack them with what will keep them from feeling hungry’, and buying food which was not nutritious, and not necessarily very healthy.
And you know, the majority of parents, you know, are people who are faced with tremendous sense of responsibility, love and care for their children. They're not wasting, you know, money, maybe a few, a very small proportion of people in poverty, due to irresponsible spending. But as a very small minority, and also the constant worry if it's bad this week, probably be next week, because something else might crop up.
Aileen: You mentioned another term, Bernadette, I just want to make sure everybody understands that the minimum essential standard of living, how would you describe that?
Bernadette: It's based on needs and wants. So you say for example, you need transport, you know, if you're in a rural area, you might need a car, but you don't need a Rolls Royce. You might need a washing machine for the clothes. But you know that's a basic, but for us, the dishwasher, at least in the past is more of a want rather than a need. You need a week’s holiday, you know, low-cost holiday, the family need that for various reasons. But you might want two holidays a year. It’s the level below which nobody can go.
So you keep coming back with the focus group, you know, when they say you need this, is the level, you cannot go below? Kind of back to what you're talking about food. We use a lot of the different healthy baskets, we use different criteria with the focus groups, and we develop the food projects.
Now the focus group actually draw up budgets on what people need, and then you work out what you can't go below. But all of our menus were tested by nutritionists. So sometimes they took out, for example, we’d too much sausages. You know, so you had to come back to the focus groups to say, you know, I can negotiate with them. You know, perhaps you’d too many crisps, you know, or you had insufficient cheese. And the focus groups in general were very understanding because they want the best for their children. And it was always interesting.
At the end of a focus group session, we were asked for the menus. One of the sad things was how often was them saying how I wish we could afford all of this as a minimum. Now it didn't come from all of the members of the focus group, because they were mixed economically, but the ones who you knew were on a tighter income.
So a minimum is the level below which you cannot go and then that will be applied to nutritious food. All the different varieties [inaudible] the protein, the carbohydrates,
Aileen: Bernadette, can I ask the extent of the problem of food poverty on the island. And how do you measure that?
Bernadette: Well, you see in England, they're trying to get some extent of or some understanding of the extent of food poverty. You know, when I refer to the study about the Food Foundation, and University of Sheffield, which they undertook, but then that was an online survey, and it was a limited sample, and they found out that for example, it was 14% of the people you know, went hungry for a particular sample, and 30% had difficulty in accessing healthy food.
Now, in Ireland, we don't have, you know, a national definition or measurement of food poverty. And the roadmap for social inclusion, they gave a figure of 7% in 2018. But this is not an official CFO statistic, it's a special derivative and indicator based on three food deprivation indicators: that you are unable to afford a meal with meat and chicken or vegetarian equivalent, every two days, unable to afford a weekly roast chicken meat, and again, the vegetarian equivalent; or missing one substantial meal in the previous two weeks. It's very broad.
The one thing that we all come across is that our own experience, and again, Robert can say more about this, because we look at, if you have a minimum essential standard of living, including that for food, you need a certain income. So if you don't have income, you’re not going to be able to afford that. And usually, food is probably the greatest casualty in that.
So like, if you look at food poverty in Ireland, if we say that, for example, the recent figures show that 695,000 people are living in poverty, and many of them would be living with food poverty, you know, and then of those two 210,000 are living below the poverty line, they're going to experience food poverty as well. So we would say that, you know, if you're talking about income, poverty, in most cases, perhaps not all, but in most cases, you're talking about food poverty as well.
Aileen: Those are huge numbers when you translate them. I’m going to move to yourself, Robert, if you don't mind. Bernadette has mentioned the food basket research. And that's the research you're doing at the moment on the healthy food basket. So could you tell me exactly what that is? And how you established the cost?
Robert: Yes, certainly. So arising from the wider MESL research, that Bernadette was talking about, we have basket of goods and services that people have agreed everyone should be able to have, that people need to have this basic acceptable standard of living, to live with dignity to be able to take part in day to day life.
And then in that, obviously, is food and food is an important component of that. So working with safefood for the last few years, we have produced a series of reports that have looked in more detail at that food element of the areas of basket for the Republic of Ireland. And then in conjunction with that we've undertaken research in Northern Ireland to establish that food aspect of the minimum standard of living for a number of household types, four household types in Northern Ireland. So obviously, we have a wider set of data in the south those and we look at a similar set of household box jurisdictions.
Aileen: And would you be able to give me an overview of the key findings of the research?
Robert: Yes. How long have you got? So yeah, certainly. So in Ireland we look at six household types, a single adult of working age, pensioner households and a number of household compositions with children. In Northern Ireland, we look at the three different types of households with children and an adult living alone.
While there’s slight differences in the households that are being looked at there are similarities in the in the overall findings. We find households, particularly households with an older child spend a significant amount more, their food costs are simply higher than for households with younger children. And that's basically because having an older child, a teenager in the household is effectively almost having another adult in the household. So that's a sort of a common finding in both sets. We also see that for the older person living alone, and food costs are a significant part of their budget. The issue around the older child and an older person living alone are things that are reflective of the wider MESL research we've been doing for a number of years for these are the types of households that are most at risk of having an inadequate income when they’re reliant on social welfare or low paid minimum wage employment.
And so in that sense, that kind of links to Bernadette’s point there and not being able to afford the food or the food being a significant proportion, of accounting for a significant portion of your income, really is reflective of your overall position of being in a very low income and precarious situation.
And another interesting finding we have is that over the last number of years in the south food costs have actually declined. Whereas for the similar period in Northern Ireland, the food costs have been going up. So it seems that costs have come down by about 5%, on average in the south from 2012 to 2020. For a shorter period of time, but from 2016 to 2020, in Northern Ireland, they've gone up by about 6%. So we do see the slight disparity there in the direction of movement.
And then when we look at the share of household income that this minimum food basket would take, we do see that it again, it varies by the composition and the situation. But we look at the other data. So these are [inaudible] social welfare state benefits, as they're referred to in Northern Ireland, or in minimum wage or national living wage employment in the south and in Northern Ireland.
When we look at that, we'd see that around between a quarter and a third of income will be required for the food baskets in the south when relying on social welfare and will be between 32% and 46% of income in Northern Ireland.
And then in terms of employment, you'd be looking at between 15% to 30%, of minimum wage income in the south, with 25% to 33% in the north. And it's always hard comparing jurisdictions and things because this was how the exact package of state supports that are available to different households are working out from the north to south to the UK system is different than ours. And some of their state benefit rates may not appear as generous as ours, but then the demands on them are different, you know, in terms of housing and health and things.
So it's not, it's not exact. The overall parcel of income that goes to the households in Northern Ireland is a bit lower than in the south though there’s maybe not quite as many demands on it.
So that’s a slight caveat or health warning on those kind of cross border comparisons. But nevertheless, we do see that the food costs are going up in the north, and have been coming down slightly in the south. And over the period that we've been doing these studies, and also over the same period, the level of income has been going up slightly in the south. So which means that say, for the older person living alone, the proportion of their food, the proportion of their income level going on meeting their food costs has been declining, where families of children the changes in food costs and the changes in income have kind of kept pace with one another. So they're kind of staying about the same level. Whereas in the north now, between 2018 and 2020, there were some increases in their incomes, there was an ending of the benefits freeze, and there was a kind of a changes in Universal Credit. And then there was what they referred to as the Covid uplift payments, the special payment that was related to Covid, obviously from the name. And so this combination of things means the level of income needed to afford healthy food baskets has gone down very slightly. But then since some of those measures that have come into effect are in fact temporary, because they're related to Covid, only time will tell whether or not that that stays the case. For instance, that Covid uplift is meant to end in October now. So we'll have to wait and see.
Aileen: So, there's been improvement for some groups, but not for others. In particular, you've highlighted there, families with a teen in the household, isn't that right?
Robert. Yeah. And I think that's one of the findings as well, it's quite consistent north and south, you know, the teenagers’ needs are very similar to an adult when it comes to their foods, their nutrition. And so the cost is significantly higher than for younger children. It’s almost one and a half times the cost of a primary school aged child, for example. So overall, if you compare it to parent household with two children, or one of those children as a teenager, two different two parent households, but one of the children isn't a teenager, and their food costs are 20% to 30% higher when the teenager is part of the household. So I think that's consistent north and south and other countries that have been doing this kind of MESL budget standards research will have similar kinds of findings as well. So it’s telling that that is an issue.
And also, I suppose then, when it comes to our state supports, and these ones, some of the supports, you know, qualify child increases paid for social welfare dependent households, and it is paid at a higher rate for persons with older children that has also younger children. But the level of difference doesn't reflect that level of difference in costs. So those households tend to show a particularly vulnerable position in terms of the amount of their income that would have to go on meeting their minimum food basket needs.
Aileen: That's at the same time that many other costs will be going up for households. And I'm some final questions for both of you. Do you feel that the public the general public understands food poverty, and its impact on society?
Bernadette: Well, see, I don't think the general public understand the impact of poverty. Because, you know, it's, there's a large number of people who are experiencing poverty, living in it, but there's also a larger, who are really fairly comfortably off. And I don't think there is because there are many myths about people in poverty. And really, you know, unless we can actually change that mind, you know, approach to people, you know, then it's, it's a difficult, very sad when you hear that people are scroungers, you know, people in poverty, bad managers, they, you know, they drink all the income, you know, they, it's on drugs, they're irresponsible, they're a small group, like the rest of the population. If we want to do something, we somehow have to get to change that mindset, you know, and see this, you know, people in poverty, and I'm glad to say, we're not talking about the poor, we're talking about people like ourselves, you know. So it's to get across the reality of poverty.
And I think also, there are many sorts of middle income households that had to struggle to get where they are. So they are angry with the people who don't do the same struggle. But you see, it's a question of resources. Some people have the inner resources or the health resources, you know, to take steps. Others, put in generational poverty, they don't have that. So, you know, I think really, when you see the reality of poverty over the years, and how it saps people’s energies, and the children don't achieve their potential, you realize it's very difficult to get that across somehow, you know.
There seems to be something that’s inhibiting us as people really to identify with people who we are supporting.
You know, when we were doing these budgets, which we talked about earlier on, I think we will say what, for example, the holiday one, ‘Why should the taxpayer support someone to go for two weeks holiday?’ We were saying, if you don't help people to meet their basic needs, you’re going to pick up the cost in psychiatric care. You're going to pay it up, and, you know, poverty comes with a cost to the country, not just the cost of the people as well, because it is going to demand on services. Something that actually - and Robert touched on them, too - it was in 2008, that our work began to show the difference, or the expense of having a teenager in the family. And we began to draw attention to them. So it took us nearly about eight to 10, seven, eight to nine years before that was accepted as evidence based. And we were doing the same actually, for the lone pensioner, you know, we were saying, Look, it's not enough for the pensioner. And also, you know, the lone pensioner, there's a whole loss of an income once a person becomes alone, so giving them seven euro a week or nine euro a week doesn't compensate for the loss of another income coming in. But now we're just saying that gives us confidence that evidence based eventually may be looked at. We can’t guarantee it, but it was in the budget of last year as of last year, and one of the ministers referred to the fact that it was the evidence based data that we were providing, that actually led to an increase for the qualified child, the older child, and some government departments understand better than others, the significance of having a minimum income, that should be really, you know, benchmarked against the cost of living.
Aileen: You mentioned, I suppose, a misperception of what food poverty means and, I think, a lack of empathy as well by others. Is there anything we can do to raise awareness of the real lived experience of food poverty, how can we let people understand this a little bit better?
Bernadette: I'd say somehow getting those stories out. The human story does actually make an impact. But and I know that the Vincent de Paul report decided that it was stories, you know, stories of struggle. Because at first it was one long struggle life. You know, one of the women described her life as one long struggle, and then the stories of struggle, somehow to get those out. And, you know, when that was launched we got a good turn out of so much people from the department including the minister and she would have commented on the fact that people don't appreciate that what it actually means.
Robert: A couple things strike me here. The discussions around food poverty, or fuel poverty or any of these where we talk about an aspect of poverty, to my mind, really, any of these are just aspects of poverty as a whole.
And poverty is multifaceted and multi faced. And they stem from people not having enough to live or not, or not having enough to have an adequate standard of living, not enough to participate, and compromises and the things they have to do without, the things they have to forego, in order to make ends meet and get by in some way, shape or form.
Obviously, food, food poverty is a very important one. But I suppose that goes back to why in a sense, we don't have a standard indicator for it because the ultimate indicator is not having enough money to live on. And the deprivation that arises from that whether it’s food or fuel.
There are some other aspects. And the other thing which strikes me is that there's that slightly incongruous thing where food poverty doesn't necessarily mean someone being kind of gaunt, they're starved looking or whatever. And that's, you know, low income, the risk of food poverty and not having enough food or not having proper good food, and obesity can all kind of coincide and live together. And then those wider kind of health effects, long term health effects, life expectancy effects of living in poverty. And that linked with not having a healthy diet and adequate food. That is a very complex and new and nuanced situation.
But at the same time for all of that, the ultimate source of that is this the issue of inadequate income and I know there are those that will need additional support. It's not just income support, but for many people. Fundamentally, it's whether the low wage they’re on, the low hours and low wage or the inadequately low level of social welfare support they receive. And then the other costs, they're faced with other costs such as high energy costs, like the high housing costs, transport costs, and so on. That means that what’s coming in isn't enough to make ends meet and what do they have to forego. And in some ways that’s food and healthier food and then other times that's keeping the house adequately warm or not paying bills not paying the rent and the homelessness we see and so on.
So all of these are aspects of one larger problem in a sense. With regards to how do we make people more aware of us, I suppose it is kind of like what Bernadette was saying, you know, sharing these stories. And SVP, some of that work, that we were involved in, the stories of struggle, and then there's other organizations we’re involved in. And then we see these stories and different reports coming out day after day. And you do wonder at what point are people going to have enough? And what is it that is needed to raise awareness? But then part of that maybe is communicating in some way with the public how these issues, like when we say that because someone can't afford to eat properly does not necessarily mean they're going to look starved, you know that someone can be in poverty and be overweight and not have a good diet because of their poverty. And that just because you see them looking unhealthy in that way doesn't mean that they're spending excessive amounts on food. That's the source of their woes overall, you know. But, I suppose overall it is a complex situation that doesn't have an easy answer.
Bernadette: To come back to safefood [inaudible] for example, you know, helping people cook with cookery skills, you know, and so, I think that does certainly help a small group, but it's not the answer. And they would say themselves, you know, it could be the answer but with the income. But on its own, as I was saying, I don't need, you know I remember when we were starting off saying would you not go to MABS to learn how to manage the money, and they looked at me and said, Bernadette, I don't need any help to manage €120. Because these people are very good managers actually, and wanting to come to classes, the majority. The fact that the children are healthy, or even alive today, is because people are good managers. But it's a huge challenge, at political level and, and at national level as well for the whole of society. And also, people don't want to hear. Policymakers don't want to hear an answer that is ‘income poverty’.
Aileen: Now that you've mentioned policymakers, Bernadette, I'm going to ask you one final question, both of you, if you don't mind, if you did have a meeting with policymakers. And you could ask for one thing that they would introduce, what would that be, and, and why?
Bernadette: Please benchmark social welfare payments and weight for minimum wage against the cost of living. Minimum has to meet, as we said, the physical, psychological and social needs. So we would say, you know, in the interest of the health of people and the nation, and I think there's a growing understanding of income adequacy. And you're certainly at European level, because we're on a European minimum income network, you know, so there is a growing and also, there's going to full European Commission, they are asking countries to come up with what we call reference budgets, you know, so you have a budget, are you going to, you know, what is the reference point? Is it going to be held? Is it going to be a standard of living? And again, coming back Veit-Wilson? Who decides what is adequate? Thank you.
Aileen: Robert, do you have another request for policy makers?
Robert: Yeah, so I think would be very similar to what Bernadette was talking about, that we would like a benchmarking of social welfare rates, minimum wage, and overall social supports to the cost of living ideally, the cost of a minimum central standard of living and ensure that people are above the risk of poverty line as well.
And I think that kind of links with the Program for Government's commitment to improving the well-being of Irish people and society overall, and the government's roadmap for social inclusion that makes it clear that poverty and social exclusion are the opposite of well-being and undermine well-being.
There's also the European pillar of social rights, right to ensure that people have an adequate income that enables them to live with dignity. I think all of these show that at government level and at European level that the fundamentals are having an adequate income that enables people to live with dignity, to take part in the day-to-day life, to have a healthy diet, and to afford a minimal standard of living, an acceptable level. And so for us, then we would see ensuring that the social welfare rates and so forth are progressively moved over time to the benchmark of the minimum standard of living will be our primary policy goal.
Aileen: Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your expertise today. I've learned so much myself I'm sure everybody listening has and really enhanced our understanding at least of the lived experience of food property. So really appreciate that and thank you.
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