Why emergency food providers should be using their voice to influence change and where to start.
The (food) poverty issue
April signals the end of the first year of a pandemic few of us could have predicted would last this long. It also marks the expected beginning of yet a new cut to the UK’s social security system, despite poverty remaining rampant. The unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 5 years and is expected to rise even higher, while food bank usage has more than doubled. People of Colour, women, trans people, disabled people, working class people and single-parent families have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the wealth accumulated by the 10 richest people (men) in the world since the start of the pandemic was enough to pay for a vaccine for all and prevent anyone from falling into poverty
Faced with these facts, the Government initially paid heed to civil society’s pleas for measures that would strengthen the lifeline and mitigate against COVID-19’s social impact. However, recently, despite widespread cross-party opposition, the Government are planning to cut the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Benefits at the end of March. What can we do, as a society and as communities, to hold the government accountable? This has been the question that has kept us up at night for many months at LCC and why we undertook a small research project on the topic which we expand on below.
Why is hearing the voices of frontline food aid providers so important?
Like so many other movements, many of us responded to this grim situation by taking matters into our own hands, harnessing the power, generosity, and resources in our communities. Nevertheless, this crisis has also exposed the limits of what collective action can achieve without a strategy directed at long-term change, especially given how stretched many of our organisations already are. While organising within our communities to redistribute food, clothes, and care, can reduce people’s suffering, it is simply not enough to radically alter the living conditions of those who are struggling.
One way to see lasting change is to influence policy in favour of the people we are working so desperately to support. Through campaigns directed at policy change, we can be part of the changes that would alter the way resources are (unfairly) distributed and how marginalised people are (unjustly) treated. Legendary Community Club (LCC), like other members of the Independent Food Aid Network, believe that many families are suffering food shortages as a direct result of Government policies. We also know that whilst emergency food providers are doing their best, the Government is neglecting its responsibilities by outsourcing them to the voluntary sector. In the process, exacerbating existing inequalities and allowing hundreds of thousands of people to fall through the cracks. Namely families with children, lone parents, disabled people, migrants and those racialised as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic who are already much more likely to be living in poverty and who are already disproportionately affected by covid-19. We are witnesses to this suffering and racial injustice. Therefore, we believe that it is our ethical duty to fight for policies targeting the structural causes underpinning the UK’s poverty crisis, of which hunger is just one symptom.
When we look around us, we see several organisations working tirelessly for their community’s wellbeing, often sacrificing their personal time and finances for a cause worth fighting for. However, there are challenges that hinder our different organisations from coming together to work strategically towards a desired outcome that we probably all share: the end of the structural inequalities driving poverty. So, we decided to reach out to grassroots organisations to gather data on how the solidarity sector in Lewisham views itself and what its members consider to be viable and realistic ways of achieving these goals.
In total, six groups answered our questionnaire. Despite being a small sample, their responses were illuminating on what small, grassroots organisations perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses when campaigning for social change.
Five out of six respondents felt that community groups can play a role in driving policy change. When asked about what tools they considered most effective, most groups emphasised using the “collective voice” of the community to inform and build campaigns. Gathering evidence, using social media (alongside traditional media), and reaching out to MPs were the second most mentioned methods.
It appears that groups perceive an unbridgeable gap between local actions and influencing political change. Even when there is a sense of what can be done politically, it can be difficult to not feel discouraged by how powerless small groups with very limited resources seem compared to big interests such as Chartwells (the food provider recently caught up in the free school meals scandal), politicians, and institutions. So how do we break this cycle and transform our despair and anger into effective activism?
Ways for small, grassroots food aid organisations to be heard:
History tells us that there are various steps in achieving structural change. We need a unified mass movement and we need this energy to be channeled into action — something community groups are very well equipped to do. The following suggestions provide a place to start:
- Join the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). IFAN connects, supports, campaigns and advocates on behalf of independent grassroots food aid providers operating across the UK including over 450 independent food banks. Find out more here and read their latest letter to the Prime Minister here.
- One strategy advocated by IFAN includes writing to MPs. Studies show this can have a positive impact. Or, for example, tweet your MP. You could use the latest figures from your organisation and ask them what they think of this situation, and when they are planning to raise this in parliament. The key is to be consistent and persistent, even if at first you do not get a response.
- Start conversations (via email, Twitter etc) with local councils about the issues your organisation is facing. Contact key members/councillors and leverage your social media position to obtain positive results. This can lead to positive relationships forming, which might result in more access to information/influence.
- Social media can be a useful tool to raise awareness with the general public, who are often unaware of the consequences of certain policies, or who are only exposed to damaging narratives about inequality and its causes. Public outrage is a very effective tool for policy change. For example, recently LCC tweeted a graphic that depicted a counter narrative to ‘we can’t afford to keep the £20 uplift to Universal Credit’.
- Despite the drawbacks of being trapped in an echo chamber, social media can be used as an effective tool to organise resistance to harmful policies by working as a network with other groups dealing with issues tangential to our own. Have a look at who your organisation is following — seek out voices from other social justice sectors and ask yourselves are you listening to voices from marginalised communities if you are not from one yourself? Are you following people with lived experience of the issues you are fighting to change, if you haven’t had these experiences yourself?
- Join campaigns and calls to action to address poverty, for example those run and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Save the Children, Child Poverty Action Group, the Trussell Trust, Turn2Us, The Children’s Society, StepChange and IFAN. Often these charities welcome collaborations with smaller, grassroots organisations in order to bridge the gaps between what’s happening on the frontline and policy recommendations. Being part of IFAN can help you make these connections.
“Building solidarity from the ground up is fundamental to root cause change” says Sabine Goodwin, Coordinator of the IFAN. “IFAN has built a platform for small, grassroots food aid providers the length and breadth of Britain through the involvement, data and evidence sharing and local activism of its member organisations. IFAN’s voice represents a collective call for change and the organisation is doing its utmost to build a bridge between local action and policy-makers”.
It can feel daunting at first, but with practice you will find your voice. We highly recommend reaching out and collaborating with other local food aid groups where possible. At LCC, we are particularly keen on joining with others, so don’t hesitate to email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. We also strongly believe that effective strategies should be co-produced where possible with the community members that your organisation is supporting. This evidence-based approach avoids top-down interventions and shares ownership of solutions. Those with lived experience know what is needed to create change but are often overlooked by policy makers. Meaningful collaboration can be created through honoring the skills and expertise within communities and building on these resources by offering support and payment where possible.
Community organising can be a daunting task, especially when those we are seeking to persuade seem to be that much more organised and powerful than we are. However, we cannot forget that, together, we truly are the 99%. By pooling resources and ideas, strengthening each other, and being strategic about our actions, we can find a way into the decision-making process. We are many; collectively, we have the power to stretch our limited capacity and resources just enough to reach our goals. Not every campaign will result in a victory or a policy U-turn, but we must never forget that as community organisers we are playing the long game. Where bigger interest organisations might have power and money, we have an endless thirst for justice — and that is our biggest asset. There is power in our community.
By Ines Silva and Dr Rachel H Tribe