Bath & North East Somerset is a small unitary district with just over 196,000 residents. Rising demand for support such as food banks and debt advice has shown that local people are being affected by the cost of living. The council has taken the approach to work with local trusted organisations to engage with people who have experience of food insecurity.
Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) is a small unitary district with just over 196,000 residents. Although this is one of England’s least deprived local authority areas, in some places inequality is widening and disadvantage remains significant. Two small areas in B&NES are within the most deprived 10 per cent nationally. Rising demand for support such as food banks and debt advice shows that local people are being affected by cost of living.
Food poverty alliance
In 2019, B&NES full council voted to develop a food poverty action plan. A steering group was set up to provide strategic direction, chaired by the director of public health and involving all the agencies and organisations providing support around food or financial welfare. In 2021 it was renamed the B&NES Fair Food Alliance (BFFA), also choosing to use the term ‘food insecurity’ instead of ‘food poverty’.
There are now more than 60 BFFA members representing a broad range of statutory, VCS, education and other organisations. They oversee and coordinate food insecurity work across the district through three central work streams: affordable food, income maximisation, and ‘Hear my voice’ (which ensures that people with lived experience help to guide policy and action).
BFFA developed the ‘B&NES food equity action plan 2022-25’ following extensive engagement and consultation with key stakeholders. Research was commissioned from the University of Bath involving residents who had experienced food insecurity and the organisations supporting them. Key performance indicators are being developed to help monitor and report on the action plan’s progress.
Public health funded a fixed-term post to coordinate the food insecurity work for 18 months. When that ended, local charity St John’s Foundation Trust stepped in to fund the coordination role. Various sources are used to fund individual projects.
Despite it being a food alliance, financial wellbeing is key strand of BFFA’s work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, B&NES saw a jump of 61 per cent in the number of people claiming universal credit – a level which has since been maintained. Local providers such as food banks and Citizens Advice report a significant increase in demand over the past two years.
BFFA’s financial wellbeing work is led by an Income Maximisation Group – which sees partners working collaboratively to ensure that all the support available is identified and communicated, and to develop and pilot new ways of providing advice and support.
People with lived experience
B&NES has taken the approach of working through the alliance members, as trusted organisations, to engage with people who have experience of food insecurity. This has involved several BFFA members taking part in the Nourish Scotland ‘Dignity in practice’ training, which helps organisations think about their approach to the delivery of support, including how they involve local people in decision making.
Alliance members have also worked with their clients to develop case studies to illustrate challenges in the system and to add to reports and evidence for Parliamentary questions, for example. Member organisations were integral to the University of Bath research, sharing their experience and facilitating introductions to community members.
B&NES Council is coordinating the cost of living response across the district. The focus of practical support is the community wellbeing hub, set up during the pandemic, which has developed into a single point of access for residents struggling with any issue – from money to mental health, housing or food. Cathy McMahon, B&NES Public Health Development and Commissioning Manager, said: “There is a lot of good learning from the community wellbeing hub model around person-centred care, of which food and finance is a part.”
Practical support from BFFA includes:
- The ‘Food finder’ website, listing all the food clubs and pantries that offer affordable food or emergency food parcels.
- A ‘Pathways from poverty’ pilot, delivered by Citizens Advice and Clean Slate using a model developed by Feeding Britain, placing specialist advice workers into community-led food projects to help resolve wider issues such as benefits, debt, budgeting, housing, energy or employment.
- ‘Poverty proofing the school day’ helps local schools to improve their understanding of the challenges faced by low-income families (such as hidden pressures created by non-uniform days and fundraising events) and the impact of these on pupil engagement, health and attainment, helping schools to make positive changes to their policies and practices.
Milly Carmichael, Health Improvement Officer for Food Poverty, said local partners were increasingly exploring ideas such as ‘food citizenship’. “People want to see food that is affordable and accessible also being nourishing and sustainable. These are important connections to make. We also want people living on low incomes to have more opportunity to have agency in the food they eat, not just to be recipients of whatever happens to be available in the system.”
- One ambition is for a more strategic approach to financial wellbeing across the district – embedding it across the council and other service providers.
- BFFA has commissioned new research on older people and food insecurity, having identified that older people are less likely to use the affordable food network.