Food poverty in a rural area: a view from West Wales
Pat Caplan, Goldsmiths
In starting a part-time project on food poverty in the UK, I decided to stick with what I know, so chose an urban site in north London (where I live most of the year) and a more rural setting of small towns and villages in west Wales where I’ve carried out a number of previous research projects on food and health, and on the social effects of animal diseases (BSE and bTB). Most of my rural research focuses on Pembrokeshire, but also includes the town of Cardigan in south Ceredigion which serves people living in north Pembs.
In research carried out in the 1990s in the small town of Newport and its hinterland on people’s perceptions of the relationship between food and health, there was little indication that food insecurity was a problem. However, there have been profound economic changes since then, both in the once-prosperous small towns in the south of the county which have lost many sources of employment and also in the farming sector with havoc caused by animal diseases such as BSE and bTB, as well as plummeting prices for farmers’ products. As a result of these factors some areas and people have found themselves struggling financially; in addition some coastal towns in Pembs have accepted former city social housing dwellers from England who have been re-housed by their councils in a cheaper area, factor which tends to increase the numbers living in poverty.
As a result, the tourist image of this area – one of outstanding natural beauty and a national park – belies the harsh realities of life for many locals: unemployment, under- or seasonal employment, and some of the lowest wages in the UK. Furthermore, the closure of village shops (and schools) and, most recently, local banks, has made life more difficult for residents of an area which already had very poor public transport. People now have to go to their nearest town for food supplies and it is very difficult to manage without a car. There is a high rate of out-migration by young people in many parts of the county, leading to a relatively large proportion of the population being middle-aged or elderly, and this trend is exacerbated by the influx of relatively affluent retired incomers.
Pembrokeshire currently has two umbrella organisations dealing with food poverty via food banks: four branches of the Trussell Trust and four of an independent charity. Both have branches in the county town of Haverfordwest but their other food banks are located in small towns in the south of the county, sites of declining industries which now offer little in the way of employment and where there is greater poverty than in the north of the county. All of the food banks have reported a rising demand and more clients during the four years I have been visiting them. There are no food banks in the north of the county which lacks towns of any size, hence my interest in the Cardigan FB just across the county border. Most of the Pembs food banks are associated with churches, not only the long-established Nonconformist chapels or the (Anglican) Church in Wales, but also the more recently-arrived evangelical churches, some of which encourage their clients to start attending the church concerned.
Locally, there is little acknowledgement or admission of poverty, on the contrary people seek to keep up appearances and many who could benefit from help tend to deny that they need it. In Cardigan the food bank manager told me about clients who had been referred by some form of social services but who refused to visit the food bank. In at least one instance he actually took the food parcel in his car to a distant farmhouse and was told firmly that this help was ‘not required’. Such a view applies particularly to older people: in Fishguard I spoke to the pensioners’ Friendship Circle about food poverty and asked the members of the audience whether they would go to a food bank if one was available. Their replies were robust: ‘Never’, ‘People of our generation know how to manage’ and ‘We wouldn’t want to give out personal information’.
Those who do admit to using a food bank may pay a heavy price. A manager in the south of the county told me that she often had journalists requesting interviews with clients, who generally refused. However, on one occasion a woman did agree to tell her story, only to find that when it was published, her neighbours shunned her for ‘having brought the town into disrepute’.
There are food counter-movements of long standing in Pembrokeshire, especially in the north, with incomers setting up smallholdings or communities based on principles such as Permaculture. More recently, some areas have seen the rise of organisations promulgating the Transition movement. In Fishguard, there was a very successful cafe using surplus food from local retailers and wholesalers, but in spite of rave reviews on websites such as Trip Advisor, there were many locals who refused to set foot in it. ‘Don’t they serve left-overs?’ remarked one woman, while others said ‘you don’t want to go in there, otherwise you’ll be seen as poor’. Since the closure of the cafe because of a road widening scheme, a Community Fridge project has been set up which it is hoped will serve a wider range of the population, and there is a similar initiative in the market town of Narberth.
People have often asked me what differences I see between food poverty in north London and in west Wales and whether the food banks are different. Trussell Trust food banks are not dissimilar to those in cities and even the independent food bank also uses a voucher system, athough all food banks give fresh food and bread, if they have any, without vouchers. In many respects the reasons which bring people to food banks are similar to those in the city: very low incomes which do not always stretch to food. This is either because of unemployment or under-employment, low wages and zero-hours contracts, or because of problems with benefits such as sanctions. There is currently (June 2018) considerable trepidation in the area about the imminent roll-out of Universal Credit which has caused such problems in other areas.
There are other similarities: in both north London and West Wales, food banks have not only collected food from baskets placed in supermarkets, but more recently made use of the surplus food donated by the food industry, particularly through the Fareshare Food Cloud scheme. When this was set up, it was hoped that it would enable food charities to receive (surplus) items as well as ambient foods. However, this scheme does not assure a regular supply and each week the amount and type of fresh food varies.
One major difference between the two areas is that the city, food banks tend to be more anonymous places, and because transport is more available, some clients choose to go further afield to avoid the risk of meeting people they know in their local food bank. This is more difficult to do in rural areas and indeed where clients do not have access to cars, food banks and other helping agencies often provide assistance in delivering food parcels, a practice which is very uncommon in north London.