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Asher Craig: What does a diverse food future look like for Bristol?

In the first of a new series of Bristol Going for Gold blogs on diversity in Bristol’s food system, Deputy Mayor Cllr Asher Craig looks at food insecurity and inequality. Read about how Bristol has stepped up during this pandemic and how the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharper focus the need for change within the food sector.

I’ve just finished reading the report released last week by Feeding Bristol on the COVID-19 community food response. The report details the city-wide efforts made to supporting the economically vulnerable during lockdown. Injustice doesn’t affect everyone equally, and while we’re all at risk of COVID-19, there are some people who are more vulnerable. The disproportionate impact of the virus in black communities and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the brutal murder of George Floyd in the US have brought this into much sharper focus around the world, and Bristol is no exception.

The work of Feeding Bristol is incredible. I thought that the charity could not surpass its record efforts of the Summer of 2019 when they raised over £100k, pledged by city partners in record time (24 hours) to deliver the Healthy Holidays Project. This saw over 53,000 meals packed and delivered to over 5,000 children and their families during the school summer holidays. 75% of beneficiaries were in receipt of free school meals.

But they have surpassed this. The food distribution network that was put in place has been phenomenal. The first 10 weeks of lockdown saw 120 tonnes of food distributed through a network of community food hubs right across the city, including emergency food projects.

Through the 26 community food hubs at least 221,000 meals and 16,200 food parcels were distributed to those in need during lockdown, with nearly half of the food support going to children.

What do the Healthy Holidays and COVID-19 community food programmes have in common?

They are both examples of the responsive nature of Bristol’s unique ‘one city approach‘, which immediately sprang into action at both city-wide and neighbourhood level to support those most in need.

Food insecurity disproportionately affects children and young people, and those living on low income. Since lockdown was announced and businesses began to furlough staff, the struggle for families to get enough food to eat has been all too real, and this pandemic has only further highlighted the magnitude of the problem of those children and families at increased risk of hunger here in our city.

Food insecurity raises questions about the extent to which our food production and food retail systems are adequate and sustainable; and questions about whether households have adequate physical access to affordable, healthy and nutritious food. The number of adults who are food insecure in Britain is estimated to have quadrupled under the COVID-19 lockdown.

Here in Bristol the COVID-19 lockdown has clearly exacerbated food insecurity among those who regularly struggle to afford enough food, created by a new economic vulnerability on account of loss of work and income, and in some instances, a loss of free school meals for children. It has also created a new vulnerability because of those shielding and in self-isolation, plus a lack of food in shops during the early weeks of lockdown added a further layer of an additional risk of food insecurity for those most at risk of poverty – adults who are unemployed, adults with disabilities, adults with children, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and older people – all of whom have been impacted.

Adults with children eligible for free school meals are experiencing a much heightened risk of food insecurity arising from a lack of money due to income loss after either being furloughed or laid off at the start of the lockdown. This risk disproportionately affects BAME communities. Even before the crisis, nationally the percentage of children in black households living in persistent low income was higher than the percentage of children in white households living in persistent low income.

In Bristol, the explosion of grassroots COVID-19 mutual aid groups and volunteers across the city added a much-needed layer of support and resources, including nutritious food parcels and cooked meals where possible. Bristol’s food sector pivoted quickly to lend their support by providing meals to the homeless and NHS/care staff. Meanwhile the Bristol Food Network delivered a range of online resources – including details of how to access help, help others and support local food providers – plus, inspiration for adapting to the crisis at home under the moniker #BristolFoodKind. Bristol’s minority ethnic communities formed a significant part of the city’s response to the crisis, such as the Food Hub Consortium Project, Feed the Homeless, the Refugee Women of Bristol and many volunteers, chefs and community workers around the city.

Talo (pictured) supports families in St Pauls and the surrounding areas with housing, employment and benefits. Find them on Facebook at talo.community.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the wake-up call the city needed to highlight the true extent of race inequality not only in wider society, but sadly much closer to home. Here in Bristol black communities have remained on the margins of the mainstream “food movement”. This must change.

The Black Lives Matter movement offers the food sector an opportunity to change course, to confront inequalities of power and to set out clear actions that are measurable. How do we do that, I hear you say? It’s simple. If you want to do more, then adapt models from elsewhere. Many other sectors and industries have reviewed their own structures, exploring how their policies can help combat racism and “build back better” in the wake of COVID-19. The food community can learn from these efforts.

Here are some suggestions as a starter for 10:

  • Prioritise candid and honest conversations about racism in the food sector. It’s uncomfortable but you need to push through the discomfort.
  • Publicly acknowledge racism within the food sector and how it manifests itself within the food movement. 
  • Commit to anti-racism and tackling institutional discrimination across the food sector.
  • Commit to educating your staff and becoming a more diverse employer.

The “new normal” must have diversity and inclusion at its core, and this must also embrace class. Bristol prides itself on its many plaudits for its offering of a truly diverse and multi-cultural food offering, but for many the food sector movement is considered too “elitist and white”. This must change.

Bristol is made up of so many communities. We pride ourselves on being a city that speaks 92 languages, is home to people of 187 nationalities, but this is not borne out in the structures that exist. As a city we must diversify our thinking, our culture and of course our love of food, which we are already renowned for.

It’s been said that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It’s now time for the food sector to demonstrate how the new normal is going to go beyond statements of solidarity.

Visit Bristol Food Network for more information and resources on Bristol’s Good Food response to the pandemic.

#BristolFoodKind is a collaboration between Bristol Green Capital PartnershipBristol Food NetworkBristol City Council and Resource Futures.