Foodbank use is growing – what does this mean in our countryside? - RSA

Foodbank use is growing – we should ask what this means in our countryside


  • Picture of Helena Kelly
    Helena Kelly
  • Communities

The issue of hunger was once viewed as largely a problem confined to the developing world, yet more developed nations are starting to see the issue re-emerge. The explosion in the number of foodbanks and emergency food provisions has emphasised the growing spread of food poverty and insecurity within the UK. When trying to address this shocking rise we must take into account its particular profile in our countryside, explains Helena Kelly, a Masters student from the University of Surrey.

As one of the largest economies and home to a multitude of billionaires and millionaires, questions must be asked about the uncomfortable reality of the growing inequality within UK society. We must also look at how people are affected differently across rural and urban areas.

Latest figures show that during the 2017-2018 financial year the Trussell Trust distributed 1,332,952 three-day emergency food parcels; a 13% increase on the previous year. The largest growths were seen in areas where universal credit had been rolled out and also in rural communities, ironically showing that the areas worst off are where the benefits system has been changed to supposedly help, or in communities where food is actually grown.

Rural-urban divide

Since the industrialisation phase of the twentieth century, the split between rural and urban communities has become increasingly pronounced. Many rural areas have been transformed into intensive production systems while urban communities developed into spaces of mass consumption. The divide and disconnect means rural communities experience some different problems from their urban counterparts, and a number of these impact upon the use of foodbanks. For example, rural areas are often not backed by strong public transport infrastructure; thus, cars are a necessity. Consequently, there is increased sensitivity to fuel prices, due to the longer distances travelled to obtain basic provisions. Furthermore, in some areas of the country, the attraction of rural locations has led to the purchase of second homes, raising house values and pricing out local buyers. Both of these examples, coupled with the higher cost of living in rural areas, can contribute to the pressures which lead to people needing support from foodbanks.

The nature of the labour market varies from town to countryside too, with significantly more seasonal work (e.g fruit picking) and self-employment found in rural areas. While this employment style suits some workers, it can leave others with insecure working conditions and pay cheques. This makes it difficult to plan finances to cover households, making them vulnerable to financial shocks – these shocks are a key driver towards foodbank usage.

And there are difficulties in accessing foodbanks specific to more rural contexts. For example, the foodbank in St Austell, Cornwall needed to set up 2 additional “satellite” food banks, in affiliation with the main one but in outlying areas, as people could not travel into town to obtain vouchers or food, and delivery services could not meet demand.

Understanding and addressing rural poverty

While there are complex issues that lead to food insecurity, poverty is a strong underlying cause. Compared to rural poverty, urban poverty has been well documented and explored in popular culture. In music, for example, the popularity of grime has spelt out some of gritty realities of city environments. It has even entered the realm of politics with Stormzy criticising Theresa May at the Brit Awards for her perceived inactivity in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire (an issue rife with poverty undertones), sending twitter and media outlets into meltdown.

However, very little media attention and public interest has risen up to discuss the issues of the rural landscape. The ideological view of ‘village England’ has enhanced the environmental aspect of the ‘countryside’, helping its protection and preservation. Yet, there is a lack of understanding, and even awareness, of social issues and poverty experienced by rural citizens, leading to a disconnect, both geographically and socially. As a result, the voices and struggles of many people in the country are not being adequately heard or considered in important national decisions. The frustration that stems from this lack of clear communication seems likely to have contributed to the higher than national average vote to leave the European Union in rural communities, with people tired of important decisions being made in a London or Brussels office.

So, while tackling the need for foodbanks is a growing agenda for many organisations and politicians, the issue needs to be equally addressed in both rural and urban areas. One size fits all approaches will not do as they fail to consider the differences in issues experienced by communities, and the environment surrounding the foodbank. We need a much better understanding of the way foodbank use shows up in different places, and its interconnections with other local concerns. To do that policy makers need to listen and respond to people’s lived experiences.

The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is committed to bringing in perspectives from people across the UK. It is doing this through its UK Tour, Call for Ideas, and County and Devolved Nation inquiries - join to the conversation.

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