LAST MONTH, a tweet went viral. It was a simple shout out to the local Cork community for a few spare pairs of hands to help filling in some gaps in the cooking rota for HelpCork, a volunteer-based initiative offering emotional and counselling support to Cork’s homeless population.
It also cooks food for its twice weekly food runs on Tuesday and Friday nights.
Why? Because the demand for that service had tripled in the previous two weeks.
Cork responded in their typically charitable and gregarious way. Ordinary people offered up their time, and restaurants offered to cook meals for free. Izz Café and Miyazaki both offered to have food available for collection from their kitchens, a local Rugby Club offered up use of their staff and kitchen, and more besides.
Fortunately for those who need the services, but sadly from a social justice point of view, HelpCork isn’t the only organisation helping people to do something the vast majority of us never have to think about: feeding ourselves.
Feed Cork, Cork Penny Dinners, SVP, Food Cloud and more are all actively engaged in feeding or providing food for hundreds of people on a daily and weekly basis.
In a city and county that prides itself as being the breadbasket of Ireland, has an incredible food culture and more food producers than anywhere else in the country, how is it that there is such a need, and a growing reliance on, food banks and soup kitchens?
Economics for one. Despite the impressive figures released by the Department of Finance, not everyone has been positively impacted by the sunny, fiscally bright picture painted of strong growth, a healthy employment market and rising wages. Along with strong economic growth comes rising costs of living – in particular, the cost of keeping a roof over our heads.
If rents go up faster than salaries, food is one of the first things that get a budget slash of their own to help rebalance the domestic coffers. When that happens, fresh fruits, vegetables and wholesome foods are substituted for bulk buys, dried goods, tinned and ultra-processed foods. Foods that have less nutritional value, but go a long way to keeping bellies full on a tight budget.
Resilience for two. Whether that’s looking at the mono-agricultural practice of growing just grass for grazing; corn, maize and wheat for animal feed, Ireland is largely a green desert. Bio-diverse farms, where there is active crop rotation, a multitude of fruits and vegetables grown, and a mix of animal agriculture are few and far between and largely the preserve of the farmers’ markets or speciality food shops. Ireland is very good at growing grass on a large scale, but not much else.
A volatile global trade market; domestic retail challenges, such as the domestic beef market crash and fast-paced change in consumer eating habits and attitudes; Brexit uncertainty, climate change and growing population are all working together to chip away at our own resilience and ability to feed ourselves well. So much of what we grow, rear, catch and harvest is traded abroad in exchange for cheaper imports and ultra-processed foods.
And yet, despite a growing need for food support services, food waste continues to be a growing problem. According to Stop Food Waste, the average Irish household bins between €400 and €1000 worth of food each year. The estimate cost of buying back the typical food we throw away is €12.50 a week – or €600 a year. It all adds up.
Though food waste generated at the retail end, i.e. food that would otherwise be thrown away by supermarkets, has had a positive impact by creating 50 million meals for people who need food and can’t afford it, preventing 22,000 tonnes of food waste going into landfill resulting in a reduction of 72,727 tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere*, the fact is that in the natural world, there is no waste. Waste is man-made, so the good news is that if we made it, we can un-make it. And that starts with food education.
Food Education isn’t just about learning how to cook, it’s about what Home Economics always used to be about. About managing a household budget, for food and bills; it’s about how to shop for food; how to store it, preserve it and using every last bit. It’s about being able to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. These are life skills, and are every bit as important as learning to read, write and do arithmetic.
Homelessness in Cork/Kerry region is up by about 22% on the same period last year (Cork Simon Community). The issue simply isn’t getting any better, despite the fanfare announcements of more house building and more rent pressure zones. Then there are the petitions from housing developers to put pressure on reducing the minimum size of new build apartments. To build up, not out; to build more by building smaller. The trend of Tiny Homes is fine, if that is a choice being made by the exercise of your own free will – not one imposed upon you. But something is better than nothing, right?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes: Article 14, The Right to Seek a Safe Place to Live; and Article 25, Food and Shelter for All. If we don’t have a place to live, how can we feed ourselves? Homes, existing or new build, must be sufficiently of a size where we can store and prepare food nourishing enough to feed ourselves and our families. A microwave and a kettle are not sufficient tools to be able to do this.
When it comes to feeding ourselves, size matters and knowledge matters, because if there is insufficient room to cook and insufficient knowledge to know how to cook, then the only option left to us is ultra-processed fast food either taken away or zapped in the microwave.
Having access to food that is lacking in every possible nutrient our bodies need to remain strong and resilient leaves only food that is a pure carrier for calories: food as fuel, leading to malnutrition. It is worth remembering that malnutrition literally means lack of proper nutrition, therefore someone who is undereating can be just as malnourished as someone who is overeating.
Industrialisation of our food system, literally from the ground up, mean that the foods we eat – fresh or processed, are lacking in goodness because the soil they are grown in is being depleted of nutrients at an alarming rate. The UN predict that there are only 70 harvests left before the soil becomes so depleted that it is incapable of producing food of good enough nutritional quality for humans. And this is assuming everything remains on the same trajectory as we are today. Of the 6,000 plant species cultivated throughout human history, today only eight of them supply 50% of our calories**. An acceleration of the effect of climate change, or a pesticide resistant virus or mite could see that number of harvests tumble further, faster.
October 16th 2019 is UN World Food Day. This year, the theme is tackling obesity. The links between our over-reliance of ultra-processed foods, mono-culture and our health are now proven. 790 million adults and children are now classed as obese, globally. Unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle has overtaken smoking as the number 1 cause of death and disability globally. While for some, days are filled with the challenge of finding enough food to eat, a large number of us are slowly eating ourselves to death directly because of our food choices and the way our food is being made or grown.
The double edged sword for those fighting to get food, is that much of what is available to them is the kind of food that, whilst filling you up and delivering calories, are lacking much of the nutrients and vitamins our bodies need to continue to be healthy and resilient against fighting illness and disease.
So I ask again, something is better than nothing, right?