5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Dominic Watters

Food insecurity and social work: Reflections from my placement

The setting of my first social work placement was a local authority contracted scheme that provides accommodation for young people with high support needs (the scheme). What brought these young people to live together is a shared experience of state involvement in their childhood and the local authority’s duty to house them under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Their presence in the scheme has been a consequence of unique experiences of neglect, abuse, trauma, loss, and marginalisation. All of the resident service users receive state benefits in differing but limited amounts. The key workers at the scheme arranged up to five visits a year to the local food bank when requested although predominantly the residents relied on weekly collections of food with little or no re-sale value from supermarkets and local businesses. I will to focus on the dynamics of a particular weekly food surplus collection as this I will argue illustrates many salient issues around power and food insecurity. Defining food insecurity in the journal International Social Work, Burgess and Shier draw on a definition provided by the United Nations as follows:

‘Food insecurity refers to a situation where individuals have inadequate access to the resources that are necessary for a nutritious diet (Burgess and Shier, 2018, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], 2015).’

Food insecurity was not an issue I had previously considered, and in researching for this article I was made aware of the real lack of literature regarding the existence of this phenomenon in England. Writing at a time of social unrest, during which football star Marcus Rashford has put debates around free school meals on the political centre stage, it is pertinent to address the states approach to food supply for some of the country’s most vulnerable. The practices I witnessed during my placement made me reflect deeply on, the centrality of food in social work contexts and the importance of reflexive engagement with this issue in social work training and practice.

At the scheme, Thursdays were the residents’ favourite; a collection from Greggs bakery of sausage rolls, donuts, and baked pastries. I was struck by how staff used access to the valued cooked food to administer a regime of reward and punishment and how the project workers would justify consuming these products themselves. Food distribution of the most desired products rested on an unwritten code that differentiated ‘deserving’ from ‘undeserving’ residents, reflecting ‘a discursive separation between deserving and undeserving poor’, (Boone et al, 2018, p2384).Moreover,this approach to food revealed a gap between formal policy and ‘street level’, (Lipsky, 1980), micro level practices. The residents’ shortages of both finances and food resulted in a heightened importance to be placed on the collection from Greggs bakery.This led me to reflect on how food insecurity impacts the resident’s sense of belonging, raising questions regarding the values and ethics within the scheme’s organisational culture, and how these contend with British Association of Social Workers practice capabilities framework (PCF), and issues around social injustices and human rights.

In reflecting on the United Nations definition, I considered further the elements of the ‘inadequate situation’ referred to above, and the need to add a socio-political framework to the concept of food insecurity.  I aimed to achieve this through systematically discussing the supply of, and access to, food as experienced by children in care, as this perspective invites analysis regarding broader points such as; the socio-economic context, the vulnerabilities highlighted by local authority practices, the varying levels of oppressive practice at play, and the effectiveness of food restrictions in control. All of these considerations will require unpacking. I also note the current Coronavirus pandemic and the states response to it, makes my chosen area of food insecurity in social work all the more significant due to both the increased, difficulty to access, and reliance on, community food resources.

*Please note details of the service users and or service provider have been edited or removed to ensure anonymity but have been included in this form to give body to my reflection.

A seventeen-year-old service-user-resident I worked with at the scheme, Bobby, previously was in foster care and then supported lodgings. He described himself as homosexual and has been experiencing some relationship troubles with his boyfriend, Ken. Bobby receives £115 from the state every fortnight through a Local Authority money card that he can then access. Advice on using the local authority money card included the following, ‘You don’t have to send in your statements as we can see them online’. Bobby was subject to the scheme’s policy allowing him three-nights-a-week he can spend elsewhere. He booked a night in a hotel chain via his money card, in the hope of repairing his relationship with Ken. His social worker was notified of this transaction. Due to safeguarding concerns surrounding this relationship and Bobby owing rent at the scheme, the local authority social worker with consent of her manager blocked and cancelled this transaction. He was returned to the scheme later that night by the police. This behaviour was considered by the project workers as warranting excluding Bobby from the weekly collection of Greggs. I provide this information to give a context to discuss the restrictions placed on Bobby’s right to self-determination and a backstory to an instance where the project workers remove access to the Greggs products. The restrictions placed on Bobby give rise to considerations of issues of liberty and its exercise. As Sakamoto and Pitner establish, ‘social workers inevitably bring more power to their interactions with service users than vice versa.’ (2005, p436).

The Bobby case study links human rights and social justice elements of the Code, (BASW, 2014) through providing evidence of a clear connection between self-determination and ‘socio-economic status’, (Ibid, 2.2.1). Boone et al (2018, p310) argue that ‘non-poor people who actually have some power to bring about social justice and social change often, and quite unintentionally, also maintain the status quo.’ There can be seen to be an overarching issue framing both human rights and social justice. This is that injustices relate to both the domains of rights and principles. Lady Hale (2016, p11) acknowledges this dual framing when criticising the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, 1950), ability to address the social conditions of the poor. She argues quoting Justice Yacoob that, ‘There can be no doubt that human dignity, freedom and equality, the foundational values of our society, are denied to those who have no food, clothing or shelter’ (Ibid).  What of the schemes’ project workers reaction to punish Bobby’s display of freedom by denying him Greggs for the week? Is this not an arm of the corporate parent reaffirming Bobby’s limited resources, as this denial of food would not have the same impact on someone with greater means. The exclusion of Bobby from a nutritional and sharing event not only raises issues around ethical practice but also acts against the aims of social work, (and perhaps project worker) principles. The globally recognised definition of social work (International Federation of Social Work 2014), Social Work England Professional Standards (2019), the British Association of Social Workers Practice Capability Framework (PCF), and the British Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, all contain directions around promoting service user participation and empowerment.

Hobson, writing as a social work student on placement in a medical setting, argues that procedures could be a mechanism for discrimination, noting that ‘institutional forms of oppression and discrimination may operate within the daily procedures, (and) policies,’ (2012, p81). In the example of Bobby we see how project workers are empowered to use discretion in this setting in a way that is reflective of Lipsky’s concept of street level bureaucracy: ‘public service workers who interact with citizens in the course of their jobs, and who have substantial discretion in the execution of their work’, (1980, p3). Lipsky discusses a gap between the policymakers in central government and the first point of contact between the citizen and the state. The project workers, arguably underpaid and underqualified to deal with the complex challenges faced by the residents, invent devices ‘to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out’, (Lipsky, 1980: xii, emphasis in original).

The project workers consumption of the Greggs baked goods intended for residents can be seen as a routine to cope with the uncertainty and undoubted emotional strain of the job, but the exclusionary practices in response to behaviour unfortunately becomes the food policy the young people who live in the scheme experience. I found it ethically conflicting to witness, but inadvertently be a part of, this oppressive practice. While mindful of the limited influence I had in my role as a student, on reflection I see how I should have stressed the conflicting ethical considerations of this practice to my Practice Educator with a greater emphasis. Hobson (2012, p 82) discusses such conflicts with a value system as, ‘difficult to be part of, and to me did not always involve working within ethical systems and value bases in the manner codified by the social work profession’. I would go even further than Hobson arguing that work with marginalised vulnerable groups of service users, when done without critical reflection, can limit a parity of participation, (Fraser, 2007), creating a culture of street level oppression, as the work is done in the absence of an understanding of the structural inequalities faced by service users such as Bobby.

Drawing from this example, I wish to sharpen my focus on how food insecurity as not only an individual problem, as stressed in the above UN FAO 2015 definition, but a systemic one inextricably linked to poverty. Given these broader concerns, it can therefore only be described as a failure that the latest updating Department of Health statutory guidance on this issue in 2015, appears to do away with any detail regarding food, nutrition, and meals, only mentioning ‘diet’ in passing on page 28, in the context of ‘lifestyle, including diet and physical activity’. The lack of emphasis placed on nutrition throughout this document has been challenged by key charitable voluntary and community organisations such as the Children’s Food Trust, the Fostering Network, and the National Association of Care Catering in their round table meeting report, (2016). In line with this concern, the NGO Food Active, in their 2019 Position Statement: ‘Food as a Safeguarding Issue’, call for action to be taken in light of the 2015 guidance stating that, ‘There is a need for nutrition to be explicitly mentioned in updated statutory guidance on promoting the health and welfare of Children in Care, along with physical, emotional and mental health’, underlining the 2015 Department of Health guidance as an ‘inadequate statutory resource’ and that local authorities, when acting as corporate parents, need clear policies and pathways to access suitable professionals on the subject of food and nutrition advice. Food Active’s Position Statement, (2019) goes further calling for an audit to be conducted regarding local authorities’ current practices. A point and demand that my experience on placement underlines as Children in Care are amongst the most socially marginalised groups in England (Ibid) not only through the deprivation experienced but also through a lack of autonomy available to them within the social structures that influence and may define their trajectory.

During my lunchbreaks I often visited another bakery café chain that supplies hot drinks and baked goods located just down the road from the scheme. Motivated by the residents’ lack of food security and my on-site supervisor’s willingness to expand the food collection system, I took the initiative to discuss the nutritional challenges faced by the residents with the bakery’s area manager.  Highlighting the connection between a right to food and a right to health, together with the possible benefits to his business that supporting the scheme could bring, contact details were exchanged and after some emails a weekly collection of surplus un-sold goods began. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the area manager, my on-site supervisor and Practice Educator’s reaction to being able to achieve a convenient additional food collection, I was aware of the short-term nature of this provision and had some concern as to the extent to which the food would reach the residents. This led me to reflect on Boone and colleagues point that ‘the affirmative strategies of social work in offering food support might contribute to the pacification of the problem of poverty when these practices merely compensate for material deprivation because people in poverty are urgently in need of this relief, without questioning the underlying societal mechanisms,’ (2018, p 2390).

My journey on placement and in completing this paper has in part left me with a sense of sadness as I believe on some level I failed to express the severity of the un-ethical practices that took place at the scheme. However, this experience has equipped me with an increased awareness and knowledge of how to discuss such matters. Social workers need to meet the challenge of addressing the far-reaching macro to micro pervasive impacts of poverty through primarily demonstrating an understanding of the forms of oppression experienced by service users. This, I would argue, should be done together with an appreciation of the ways both human rights and social justice matters intertwine, and therefore should not be treated exclusively or as if they are distant cousins, but rather fundamentally interrelated. Revealing and interrogating the manifestation of poverty-based obstacles creates an opportunity for social workers to develop a radical reflexivity necessary to meet the challenge of food insecurity awareness in a post-covid-19 world.

Dominic Watters, Postgraduate social work student at the University of Kent

Twitter – @SingleDadSW


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