Empowerment approaches to food poverty in NE Scotland
In Aberdeen City, falling oil prices slowed growth and increased unemployment and food poverty after 2014. Despite Scotland’s commitment the Sustainable Food Cities approach, use of food banks increased, due to a mix of factors, including increased living costs and precarious employment; changes in benefit entitlements and barriers in claiming welfare benefits. The government is also committed to community involvement in local planning, passing in 2015 the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, to support communities to engage in how public budgets are spent.
Aberdeen City Council (ACC) and National Health Service (NHS) Grampian; and two social enterprises, Social Bite and Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE) have engaged with communities in addressing food poverty, through enabling pathways to employment, financial capability and housing, by supporting households to move out of food poverty and through community grant-making in low-income urban areas through participatory budgeting.
Social Bite is a social enterprise that provides food to homeless people and, through this, pathways to supported employment, financial capability and housing. Sandwich shops and cafés serve the public and customers are able to ‘pay forward’ for meals for homeless people when they buy their own food. The café also provides a social space where people in various stages of homelessness can come in for a sit-down meal in ‘social suppers’, where they also find counselling, skills building and one-to-one support for housing and healthcare. Social Bite also helps with accommodation, training, qualifications, work experience and ultimately a full-time paying job for some homeless people, co-operating with a local organisation, Business in the Community, to organise placements in cafés, hospitality groups and retail outlets. The social suppers and other activities are peer and volunteer led or supported, providing a ‘pipeline of support’ to overcome disadvantage. Their social media presence has also provided a voice for the homeless community and challenged stereotypes, shown in a video of the work (click on the Social Bite. photo adjacent to watch the video)
CFINE contributes to health and regeneration in disadvantaged communities by promoting consumption of healthy food. The organisation co-ordinates the Food Poverty Action Aberdeen Partnership (FPAA), bringing together 61 agencies responding to food poverty. CFINE involves and employs people living with varying forms of poverty and disadvantage, including homelessness, low incomes, unemployment, mental health issues, learning difficulties and offending backgrounds. It runs sixty community food outlets selling affordable fruit and vegetables in deprived communities; distributes fresh, quality and in-date surplus to charities and community organisations and provides a training site and course on cooking skills and healthy eating in a programme supported by NHS Grampian. CFINE is building financial capabilities for people to claim services and benefits and obtain employment; ‘walking beside people who struggle’ to navigate systems seen to be hostile to them.
Recognising these community and voluntary sector assets and roles, and responding to legislative changes in community involvement, the Aberdeen City Council (ACC) initiated participatory budgeting in 2015 to promote inclusive decision-making over the allocation of public funds, including to address food poverty. The first round was introduced in 2015, driven by local champions to allocate £100,000 on youth work and activities for under 12-year olds in five deprived areas of Aberdeen. It was introduced in schools as familiar community spaces, and primary and secondary school pupils voted on the bids produced by community groups, as shown in a video. The bids focused on fitness and health, digital media and technology, citizenship, the environment and the arts. The second round expanded to three urban localities using a web platform UDECIDE, administered by a participatory democracy platform, Participare. Social media was used to widen participation with bids received on digital skills, health, sports and exercise, food suppliers, cooking skills, hygiene and sanitation and community gardens and green spaces. The process concluded with a deliberative forum where voters could interact with bidders. While there is ongoing learning from the process it has enabled creativity and community engagement in decisions on public budgets.
All three processes have benefited from an enabling legal, policy and institutional environment, but also face challenges in cuts in welfare and social funding and weaknesses in co-ordination across services. These experiences show the value of approaches that start in familiar community spaces and empower people to claim rights and benefits, of spaces to innovate, test and develop practices, such as that provided by social enterprises, and of safe spaces and support for people to move out of vulnerable situations and make claims on services.
From the case study report by L D’Ambruoso, P Abbott, F Douglas, E McPherson, E Okpo . Photos: Participatory budget bid: Mini market © The Allotment Market Stall 2016, and Flyer on PB voting event (2nd round), Seaton School Community Project, 2017