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The reality of food poverty

As a single dad on benefits, social work student Dominic Watters knows all too well the reality of food insecurity

Henry the hoover used as a plant pot

Professional Social Work magazine - 9 October, 2020

I am a single dad living with my daughter on a council block in relative poverty. The area where I live in Kent is characterised by low education levels, gangs, drugs and dilapidating properties.

Our lived experience is one of eviction notices and nights where I would feed my daughter first and eat what she left over, if anything at all. It is of the reality of using food banks just to survive. This is a lived experience that exists in a county of extreme wealth, mass tourism, grand buildings, historic cathedrals and great educational establishments.

The estate we live in is located in an ungentrified part of Kent. Our local shop only stocks the lowest quality food products. There is scant little in the way of fresh or organic produce.

This nutritional desert is accompanied by a paucity of good quality reading matter, with only The Racing Post, and The Sun sold in our shop.
Against this backdrop of poverty – and inspired by ‘Gangsta Gardener’ Ron Finley’s book Guerrilla Gardening – my daughter and I attempted to transform our balcony into a place of nature and growth.

This balcony garden now offers salsa chillies, spring onions, tomatoes and a range of herbs. We have done this to challenge the accepted discourse that people who use food banks or who live in poverty have a lack of a connection to fresh produce and can’t cook.

As I write, our world has been impacted by Covid-19. Rather than being a great equaliser, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the inequalities that exist in society.

Our politicians constantly tell us of the importance of physical social distancing. Much less is said by them about the social distance that exists between groups in society due to class, race, poverty, or other factors. 

It took a highly-paid footballer to highlight this type of social distancing. Through social media and other campaigning, Manchester United and England player Marcus Rashford helped put child poverty and food insecurity at the centre of political discussions. 

A key reason his campaign has been so influential is that he drew on his own experiences of a financially impoverished childhood with anxieties around food and real concerns about having enough to eat. His message struck a chord and led to changes in government policy and to the forming of a taskforce with some of the UK’s biggest food brands to try to help end child food poverty.

Rashford’s message resonated with my own situation. At an online debate during BASW’s 50th anniversary festival, I talked about food insecurity and the lived experience of food poverty and how it is something that profoundly affects the lives of children and adults in even the richest countries.

Food poverty is as pernicious as it is widespread. A recent article in the New York Times noted that “Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: a food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes.” 

Despite all the evidence and media coverage, there are some who appear to question the existence of food poverty in wealthy countries.
Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of the Conservative politician and leader of the House of Commons Jacob, recently quoted the price of a bag of potatoes being only 83p to make a point about the availability of healthy eating to all. Perhaps she has never felt that gnawing insecurity I have felt at the checkout due to the uncertainty of whether you will be able to pay for everything in your shopping trolley or basket. 

My journey into social work comes after experiencing this, of living on council estates, of attending family court and being a single parent. It is only now that my daughter is older and attending a secondary grammar school that I have been able to focus on building a career. 

Studying social work required changes to my benefits and moving from Job Seekers Allowance to Universal Credit when I started my course. This resulted in constant threats of court proceedings and a threat to possess our home due to delays in payment. It is another example of the many barriers the system places on people in my position to being socially mobile.

When you have been through a lengthy court case over the residency of your child, when you have attended court proceedings that could result in you being homeless, you are left with a profound sense of desperation and weariness. 

I still receive notifications of impending court proceedings which only exacerbate the sense of uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic. 

A report by Child Poverty Action Group and The Church of England, Poverty in the Pandemic, highlights the disproportionate effect this crisis is having on single parents as they are often left alone to overcome the financial challenges they face.

I have been fortunate to have had support from family members at times. However, it can feel disempowering to do this, as if you are a burden within your family. When such feelings are mirrored in broader society the impact of poverty can leave you feeling vulnerable and insecure participating in the world as you do not enjoy any of the safety nets and privileges those in stronger positions have. 

Poverty can make you internalise a belief that your voice is not of value. The food campaigner Jack Monroe recalls of her own experience: “I was just about keeping up appearances.” 

At least 670,000 extra people will become destitute before the year ends, a report by the Trussell Trust called Lockdown, lifelines and the long haul ahead predicts. The need for food insecurity awareness to be an integral aspect of social work’s future is clear. 

As a single dad from a council estate I want to speak to the profession’s commitment to create a diverse next generation of social workers. Just how needed the lived experience of poverty and food insecurity will be to the future of social work has yet to be determined. 

But given predictions that extreme poverty will double by Christmas in the UK, I strongly suspect such awareness is likely to be vital to our work.

Dominic Watters

Click here to see an interview with Dominic about food poverty for Anti Poverty Week

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.