Taking the Poverty out of ‘Food Poverty’

PhD student Luke Craven examines the problems with how policymakers frame food insecurity

As published in The School of Social and Political Sciences Magazine – Issue 3, 2016

According to recent reports, 1.2 million Australians regularly struggle to put good, healthy food on the table. The average Australian income is buckling under the weight of high living costs, an increasingly casualised and precarious labor market, and government policies that have long prioritized economic growth over reducing inequality. The result is that many households don’t have enough money to eat or to eat well. In policy jargon, problems like these are often referred to as food and nutrition insecurity.

In recent years, though, the term ‘food poverty’ has been increasingly used to describe food insecurity and has found particular salience in British policymaking circles. A quick scan of the Australian scene suggests that it is catching on here too. We should be concerned about this development.

How we frame a social problem matters. It shapes how policymakers and the public at large perceive its causes and consequences. And, crucially, it affects their beliefs about what governments can and should do to intervene. While certain frames may make sense to progressive anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates, we must not forget that our most important job is preaching to the unconverted. That requires us to think more critically about the frames we deploy. ‘Food poverty’ is not the right tool for the job.

Food insecurity is a complex problem, its causes are multiple and interacting. How much you earn is certainly important, but so too is where you live and the factors that influence your food choices on a day-to-day basis, from how much time you have to the availability of unhealthy food nearby.

The practical problem with ‘food poverty’ is that it focuses our attention on income to the exclusion of other factors. That is not to say that income is not important – it is – but simply giving people more money is not the solution to food and nutrition insecurity.

Many proponents of the ‘food poverty’ frame argue that the term is ‘multidimensional’, taking into account a broad range of individual-level and structural determinants beyond economic poverty. Convincing the public to buy into that narrative, though, is a tough sell. Its multidimensionality isn’t immediately clear. And that’s a massive problem. If we’re trying to build public support for government interventions on the issue of food and nutrition security, naming it ‘food poverty’ does us no favours.

Cultivating an environment in which the public view inadequate access to food as a symptom of poverty renders its other determinants functionally invisible. If income is the problem, for example, nothing need be done to curtail the marketing practices of large multinational corporations because if only people had more money, they would make better choices. We know that not to be true.

Our choice of frame needs to resonate with the fact that we are attempting to fix a problem that is a complex web of factors, actors and social forces. While ‘food and nutrition insecurity’ and ‘hunger’ are by no means perfect terms, they do allow advocates to readily shape conversations in a way that speak explicitly to their multidimensional nature. We know that there are a myriad of reasons why families struggle to put good food on the table. We need to be able to tell those stories, embracing their complexity.

The point here is that every act of illumination also obscures. It is undoubtedly helpful to draw links between food access and income, but not if, in doing so, we sacrifice support for better public transport, rent controls, or stricter labelling regulations. And that is what we risk doing with a ‘food poverty’ frame.

This is not a new problem. For the past decade, much of the food insecurity debate has focussed on the elimination of food deserts. The ‘food desert’ narrative offers up a particular metaphor of food scarcity, with the solution being the provision of more supermarket oases in hungry communities. Policymakers, unsurprisingly, responded in kind, with a slew of interventions aimed at the eradication of food deserts.

And yet the prevalence of food insecurity in the developed West increased over the same time period. The problem with the ‘food desert’ narrative is that it equates food access with supermarket access, when, in reality, the situation is far more complicated. Proponents of the ‘food poverty’ frame should be lauded for their attempts to broaden the discussion, but ultimately they fall prey to the same trap: equating food insecurity with economic poverty.

In particular, a focus on economic access to food may obscure the question of nutrition in food policy debates. There is a reason that many food security advocates have shifted their language to ‘food and nutrition security’. Nutrition needs just as much attention as food itself. If the quick conflation of the ‘food poverty’ and ‘food bank’ conversations in UK is anything to go by, it is easy for nutrition to be lost, or actively obscured, in debates about food policy.

In addition, we know that there is remarkable variability in people’s beliefs about what causes poverty, which in turn is likely to affect the level of popular support for policies aimed at addressing ‘food poverty’. Research has consistently shown that people regard poverty as a moral failure on the part of the poor. In America, as well as Europe, people who are poor or on welfare are frequently considered lazy and undeserving of help.

These dynamics are politically skewed. Conservatives generally blame the poor for the challenges they face. Progressives accept that structural conditions are also responsible for inequality and suffering. So, by framing the issue as ‘food poverty’, progressive advocates are, in many ways, shooting themselves in the foot. The causal construal at the heart of the poverty narrative plays right into the hands of the conservative base: it reinforces the belief that people can’t eat or don’t eat well because of the choices they make. And if people buy into the narrative that food insecurity is born of poor choices, calls for structural change have little chance of success.

Proponents of the ‘food poverty’ frame may argue that we can talk our way out of these problems. They might claim that advocates can explain to the public that poverty means more than poverty, that its causes go beyond the individual, and that ultimately, it is the system we need to change. But new research suggests that people ignore facts that jar with their belief systems. The ‘poverty’ label comes with a lot of highly moralized, ideologically charged baggage about who caused what and who is responsible. Our arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears.

So, the ‘food poverty’ narrative might make sense to some, but is limiting in what it obscures and is unlikely to help us win over a more conservative, unconverted audience. Both outcomes are deeply problematic if our aim is to build genuine public support for government policies to address food and nutrition insecurity.

Finally, we should be concerned that calling the problem ‘food poverty’ throws fuel on the fire of already existing stigma and shame that people face as they struggle to put food on the table. Community advocates have routinely called for the end to labels that inadvertently stigmatise those they seek to serve. ‘Food poverty’ does just that.

Poverty is a moral concept as well as a descriptive one. In many of the food insecure communities in which I have worked, ‘poverty’ is considered a personal failing of which people are ashamed. In those communities, I would struggle to find anyone that would be willing openly and directly admit that they were facing ‘food poverty’.

If, as anti-hunger and Right to Food advocates, we are committed to promoting the dignity of the communities with which we work, we need to think seriously about dropping the ‘food poverty’ frame all together. And if the moral case for doing so isn’t enough, stigmatizing low-income households makes for bad public policy. People are more likely to engage with services that treat them with respect and seek actively to promote their dignity.

So, can we please stop calling it ‘food poverty’?

Luke Craven is a PhD student at the University of Sydney and the Sydney Environment Institute. His interests lie in the application of social and political theory to contemporary policy problems, with a focus on food politics, policy, and system reform. His research aims to develop a set of theoretical tools to understand and address the determinants of household food insecurity in first world urban contexts.

Image: ‘fast food menu’ by kleer001 via Flickr Commons