Feed the World – Starting Local

160 - TinsThese are undoubtedly hard times for a lot of people.

In austerity Britain, as in most of the developed world, the Government is struggling to balance the books – and, as is usually the case in such circumstances, it is the poor that are facing the most hardship as a result.

Remarkably over twenty percent of the UK’s population is considered to be living in poverty: more than 13 million people, including over 3 million children. Most projections suggest this figure will increase further over the coming years.

Of course how you define poverty matters – discussions of poverty in the UK and other developed countries tend to consider relative poverty, the level of  inequality across society, rather than absolute levels of material deprivation or hardship. The current most widely used UK definition of poverty is a household income below 60% of national median income, ie: below £13,000 a year, or around £250 a week (varied depending on family size). It’s not hard to see how household income levels much below this figure can place the family under continual financial stress and uncertainty and contribute to social exclusion – preventing the family from engaging in things like travelling to see more distant relatives, attending children’s activities like swimming or sports, or taking holidays, trips and occasional meals out.

Inequality and social exclusion are certainly important issues, but focusing  on issues of relative poverty alone can obscure something else even more important – the existence of more extreme levels of poverty and hardship.

Absolute poverty is typically defined as an inability to meet basic human needs such as shelter, warmth, food, health and education, and while precise definitions vary, in the UK the typically used household income figure of £216 a week is used as a threshold for a more absolute level of poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate around 8.4 million people in the UK are in this position.

This can mean living in unfit housing badly affected by damp and mold, lack of sufficient heating, a shortage of basic clothing, no access to transport, and increasingly severely restricted access to food.

A family living hand to mouth has little ability to plan and save for the future, and when something goes wrong such as the car needed to travel to work needs fixing, or the heating boiler breaks and needs repair, or the main breadwinner is unable to work due to injury or illness, then food is often the thing that suffers.

The growth of foodbanks across the country is a testament to people’s concern, compassion and solidarity for those most in need within their own communities. Last year UK, foodbanks fed over a quarter of a million people.

The basic idea of a foodbank is that it collects and stores tinned and packet food donated by individuals, and then works with the various professional agencies like schools, GPs, social services and Job Centers etc, so that people and families considered to be facing substantial hardship, can be referred to the foodbank to receive a few days worth of food, to help tide them over any period of crisis. The aim is not to provide long term support, but just help take some of the pressure off the family finances to help them get back on their feet. The majority of UK foodbanks are affiliated with the national foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, who assist with organisation and data collection etc.

Over the last year I’ve been part of a small team working to set-up a foodbank in my local area – organising premesis, governance, finances, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers etc, and last Saturday I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours, along with the Youth Forum and many other volunteers, helping collect food donated by generous shoppers outside my local Co-Op supermarket, on behalf of the (soon to be opened), Forest of Dean Foodbank.

If you’re looking for something positive to get involved in within your local community this year why not consider your local foodbank – they’ll be happy to accept food donations or any offers of help, and you can be sure you will help make a tremendous positive difference to people’s lives.


Photo by sterlingpr via Flickr

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More Equal Than Others ?

Do you get headaches when stressed ?

How about more frequent colds, difficulty sleeping or even higher blood pressure ? Do you find yourself being more moody, eating too much of the wrong type of food, taking less exercise, getting angry quicker or drinking too much ?

In general the more stress we feel under, the less healthy we are – both because the stress itself has a negative effect, but also because we tend compensate for stress in unhealthy ways – such as comfort eating or drinking too much, to make ourselves feel better in the short term.

If we’re smart of course, we can try to avoid or minimise whatever’s stressing us in the first place.

But some of the things we get stressed about aren’t always that obvious. This is especially true of chronic stresses, things we don’t associate with a particular event or set of circumstances, but consider to be ‘just part of life’. These include social stresses – such as worrying about how we’re seen and judged by others etc.

In the 1970s a health study of UK civil servants was carried out. Its findings were so unexpected that a second study was carried out in the 1980s.

What the studies found was that the higher the grades of the civil servant, the longer their life expectancy. This was true not only between the very top and the bottom, which might have been reasonably expected, taking into account things like improved diets, earlier retirements etc, but it was also true on almost a grade by grade basis throughout the very hierarchical civil service structure. The researchers could not explain this in absolute terms, only in relative ones.

It seems it’s not how much money and status you have that matters, but how much money and status you have compared to those around you.

This fascinating finding has lead to the study of what are now referred to as the Social Determinants of HealthSir Michael Marmot (who undertook the original civil service health studies) has advised successive UK governments on the effects of what he refers to as: Status Syndrome. These are the negative health consequences of feeling you have comparitively lower status, and less ability to direct your life, than those around you.

It’s not just individuals who are affected by the negative consequences of social stresses, but whole societies, and they are not confined  only to health effects.

More divided and unequal societies also have higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, crime and imprisonment. In many respects this shouldn’t be a surprise – greed and respect based violence might be expected to be more common in societies where which wealth and status are seen as priorities, but are simply unattainable for large numbers of people.

The more unequal and divided a society the greater these effects become.

Professor Richard Wilkinson, author of the book The Spirit Level, discusses the negative consequences of societal inequalities in his Ted talk below. Wilkinson also wishes to see his group’s findings used to help develop policies which will make societies more equal, and in conjunction with others has founded the organisation The Equality Trust, which works to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK.

Making our societies more equal it appears, will not only help improve social and public health outcomes, but will also hopefully help to peacefully heal the increasingly deep divisions in our society.

If trying to achieve a more equal society seems a bit too big for today’s To Do List, you could always work on your own status anxieties instead.


Photo from GunGirlNewYork via Flickr

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