The Bristol charity building long-term food security in their community
1st June 2023
In the year up to March 2023, the number of emergency food parcels handed out through food banks in the UK was close to 3 million, a 37% increase from the previous year. In 2008, the number was just 25,000.
In response to this staggering rise in food insecurity and the problems associated with this, such as increased consumption of cheap, unhealthy foods, many organisations and charities across the country have turned their attention to food.
The Hartcliffe and Withywood area of South Bristol is one of the most deprived in the country, falling in the bottom 10% according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation. It’s a peri-urban landscape of fragmented urban and rural characteristics – with inner city-style tower blocks surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful countryside. It’s also home to Heart of BS13, a community organisation that’s taking a different approach to food aid – and putting the emotional and health needs of residents at the very core of their offering.
Georgina Perry is the Executive Director of Heart of BS13 and has over 30 years of experience leading services that tackle health and social justice issues in the voluntary and statutory sector.
Georgina Perry is Heart of BS13’s Executive Director and has over 30 years' experience in health and social justice.
She is also a disciple of Michael Marmot, the legendary public health professor best known for his ground-breaking work on the social determinants of health – the non-medical factors such as income, neighbourhood and education that can influence someone’s health.
She explains some of the issues they’re trying to tackle. “The estates here were built in the 60s and 70s, and this is an area of deep transgenerational poverty. People die young and live with chronic health conditions for many years. If you are a man living in this part of Bristol, you will die on average 14 years earlier than your peers in more affluent parts of this city. A large number of residents live with long term conditions and mobility issues, and of course, diet and obesity have a huge part to play.”
Set up in the 90s, the charity has been through various iterations as an organisation, shifting its focus to meet the needs of the community. “Our work is currently based around three key intersecting elements. Food and nutrition, climate action and vocational training.”
It's an impressive and wide-ranging programme. “We run a community freezer and kitchen, where a brilliant professional chef cooks for the local community and produces gourmet freezer meals, which are then sold across the city to bring revenue into the food security work stream. We run a sustainable flower farm, where we help people who have experienced barriers to employment access vocational training. We run health and nutrition projects with families to help children achieve a healthy weight, as well as putting slow cookers in households and supporting with ingredients, recipes and workshops delivered over social media platforms. And then we also run lots of climate action events and activities, with a particular focus on children and young people’s engagement with the issue.”
Heart of BS13’s community flower farm.
The flower farm is a recent addition, replacing their community food growing initiative that was set up only a few years before. “We always knew horticulture was going to be a challenge because producing high quality food is very resource intensive – and you need to grow and sell at volume if you want to pay staff a decent wage. Ideally, you’re also producing food you can give or sell to the community – but because organic, locally-grown food is such a high-cost product, the figures just don’t add up.”
A few years ago, Heart of BS13 was supplying local restaurants with salad and vegetables, with a portion going to their kitchen to feed local community. But for Georgina, there was a troubling contradiction in what they were doing: “We were selling to restaurants at prices that local people just couldn’t afford. And while some of the produce was used in our community meals, our food growing initiative wasn’t actually improving the food security of local people.”
Volunteers at Heart of BS13.
Georgina’s point is an important one: too often community or local growing projects don’t help the people they claim to benefit – and are dominated by those who have the resources to volunteer their time and energy, and benefit from its outputs.
“The community growing movement is great if you have the time. If you’re juggling three jobs, a family and limited finances, then asking people to wait four months until the potatoes you planted are ready to harvest really isn’t that useful.”
So, what sort of actions can community organisations take to improve long-term food security? “The problems in this community are systemic. Supermarkets which you need to access by car have replaced local butchers, grocers, and bakers. Now, the only shops within walking distance sell processed foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, and are exorbitantly expensive. It’s a real food desert round here.”
Add to that the economic barriers of unemployment, stagnating wages and a broken welfare system, and a food system which pushes cheap, unhealthy food on the most deprived communities, and the scale of the problem becomes clear.
“The most important thing we can do as an organisation is realise that poor health and bad diet is not about individual inaction or sole responsibility. We recognise our limitations, and we sadly can’t support everyone – it’s the government that needs to put in place the conditions for people to eat well.”
Georgina and her team also put dignity and empathy at the very heart of what they do. “We always start with a simple question: what does it feel like for the people who need to come and use this service? Remember that poverty places a huge burden on mental health, and one of the first things that goes when your mental health is suffering is the desire to socialise in traditional ways. Initiatives like community cooking classes can feel very excluding if you aren’t able to leave the house, so let’s get imaginative and think about ways of using everyday communication platforms like WhatsApp groups to run sessions.”
Heart of BS13 run a community kitchen and freezer for local families.
She adds that “it’s not unusual in food scarce households for there to be a lot of distrust around food – different flavours, different textures. Kids, even adults, have grown up on poverty food and so that’s all they know. Families have also told us that fresh food they get from the foodbank can go to waste. Not because they don’t know what to do with it, but because they haven’t got the mental headspace or money on the energy key metre to cook a complicated meal.”
For many who have never experienced food insecurity this might sound shocking, but the crippling effects of poverty can never be underestimated. And for people who are forced to make extreme decisions daily – such as the choice between eating or heating – a level of autonomy is key.
As Georgina says, “we need to stop patronising people and ask them, what do you actually want and need? And long-term, we need government interventions to create a better food system – I don’t want us to still be giving out emergency food aid in five years' time.”
Our new report Beyond charitable food aid explores what's needed for funders and communities to transition away from delivering food aid to build real and long-lasting food security.
We're also planning a national conversation about food. Find out more below.