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Food Poverty Outdoors

A remarkable thing happened this week. Marcus Rashford a young black footballer wrote an open letter to the government concerning holiday hunger during the pandemic and managed to get a U turn in the decision to provide food vouchers this summer. The campaign was started as Rashford fully understood the food poverty problem as he himself received free school meals. What is notable is that it maybe takes a person who has lived it, to feel so passionately about such a problem that they are willing to go public about their experience with poverty, even at some considerable risk to themselves.

We are becoming much more aware of the problems with privilege and the outdoors, we know that it is often expensive in terms of kit, travel, and training, we know it can be more difficult for marginalised groups to access natural spaces or be accepted in outdoor environments and leadership roles, we know that outdoor activity carries with it a certain amount of experience, understanding and cultural capital that not everyone has access to.

This is where my research and my practice lies. I am concerned with how access to the outdoors can become equitable. Much of my past research has been about the role of food outdoors. Food is a lens through which we can understand cultures and relationships, and this is no different in the field of outdoor learning. Food is social currency, we all need it and use it as well as food being fuel for our biological functions. We may be aware of the biological food functions but maybe not aware enough of the social functions. Anthropologists have long studied food practices in cultures, globally and historically to understand their social hierarchies, beliefs and norms. It is possible to take a view of common outdoor learning practices in a similar anthropological way to discover and analyse what its own social hierarchies, beliefs or norms may be. The relationship of food to outdoor practice also reflects the values and norms of each type of outdoor practice. Certain styles of cooking may be favoured, particular people may always do the cooking, or popular food types consumed, depending on the branch of outdoor learning involved.

I don’t think that as outdoor practitioners we consider our food-based practices enough. If we did we would learn much about what we reflect and project about our practice, and for the purposes of this blog, we may also uncover how inclusive (or not) our practice is.

So if food is social currency then it is like an invisible ticket to an event, that many just don’t have and then won’t be able to even get through the gate. This is where some people struggle to fully understand food poverty- it has health implications obviously but it has major social implications too. Food is linked to social power and to specific rituals of groups. If you have limited access to food then you have limited access to what you can take part in. Of course, food poverty IS about hunger and nutrition but we need to understand that it is also about what you can or can not take part in socially or even, educationally. Any person growing up in poverty with limited access to food knows this fact well. If you have thankfully, never been without ample food then you may not know this. In the research done by Children’s Poverty Action Group (CPAG), in Living hand to mouth they describe how children and young people are skilled at making up reasons or excuses for not wanting to take part, because they know they can’t not because they do not want to, but because it involves sharing food socially. How organisations design food sharing and meal times is vitally important, it is the danger zone for poverty stigma and bullying to occur. Sharing food is a way of belonging, without basic resources many do not have the luxury to choose to belong. Even when adjustments are made to prohibitive costs for people experiencing poverty, for example a sliding scale of entry cost or subsidised places or even free entry, if having or bringing food is part of what is expected, then those in food poverty will know it is not for them. In short, those without enough food will be unlikely to make it to your group/session/event anyway, even if it is free.

I argue that any of the potential benefits that make up the common discourses of Outdoor Learning, experiencing or connecting with nature, being challenged, increasing resilience, team work, physical fitness, improved educational outcomes, etc. are irrelevant if you are hungry and do not have access to enough food. The English Outdoor Council state 5 key benefits of Outdoor Learning as being:

  • enhanced personal and social communication skills

  • increased physical health

  • enhanced mental and spiritual health

  • enhanced spiritual, sensory, and aesthetic awareness

  • the ability to assert personal control and increased sensitivity to one’s own well-being

These benefits are only possible if an individual already has their basic needs provided for. As outdoor practitioners we are limited in what we can provide in terms of some basic needs, but we can provide food. We can also have an awareness. Food is already a part of practice for many outdoor leaders, it could just be considered as routinely as safety and risk assessments. Particularly when working with potentially vulnerable or marginalised groups, there is no excuse to not consider this, but the rest of the time, it should always be on your list, as young people in poverty can be spectacularly skilled at hiding their predicament. What we DO know is that no one in the outdoors under any physical or mental challenge, will do well without appropriate food and nourishment.

Shame and fear are two emotions commonly associated with food poverty. The shame felt after experiences of being hungry and needing to ask for food are long lasting and ingrained. Food is a way in which we can participate socially, when food poverty is a factor in our lives our sense of ourselves and our belonging is affected. It can make it difficult to participate in many kinds of social activity. Even after the food crisis may have passed, we can be left with fears of similar circumstances returning and continued resistance to participate in social activity can persist. “When food and housing are under threat, this can instil feelings of insecurity and a fear of the future. Shame is commonly associated with a sense of insecurity and is seminal to understanding the experience of poverty” (CPAG Living Hand to Mouth, 2019). A feeling of shame is one of the ways that narratives around poverty are controlled. We are able to read or watch politicised views of people in poverty not helping themselves but less likely to read about or watch direct experiences of poverty due to the shame people feel about living or having lived in poverty. This is just one of the reasons why Marcus Rashford’s campaign is so important. Experiencing poverty makes participation in most social activity problematic and outdoor learning opportunities are no different.

Eating outdoors can help to break down social codes and formalities traditionally associated with social eating occassions indoors and therefore allow individuals to participate who may not ordinarily. Food practices in one culture or social class can be very different in another and not as automatically “known” or understood as we may assume. Making food available or making food central to Outdoor Learning can have many inclusive benefits. My practice and research over the past few years has shown this. It is often discussed that eating outdoors may help to attract groups from culturally diverse backgrounds and certainly we have seen this with families who have a love and experience of an outdoor cooking culture or an outdoor living culture. I have also seen that it was more likely that mothers could attend events if it meant that their families were still provided for with a meal. Being freed from the responsibility of providing the family meal freed up many mothers to attend and participate in community Outdoor Learning events. The mums who regularly attended also talked about how they had been able to integrate their new food ideas into the family menu. For individuals diagnosed with ASD trying new foods outdoors was a way to reset their expectations about food, often leading to a more experimental and broader palette. Individuals with social anxieties that played out through food or food related disorders, it was observed, were more likely to try and enjoy new food while outdoors, active and socialising in a way that was different to their usual activity.

Being around the fire and cooking outdoors appears to join people together in ways that indoor cooking does not. Making fire the centre of a food event explicitly makes the food event an outdoor one that may attract more diverse outdoor participation. Many people expressed that food was better outdoors or that being outdoors made them want to eat. Fire certainly extends the time that groups will remain and participate in outdoor events by providing, light, warmth, atmosphere and focus. Although it appears that eating outdoors generally, was a stronger appeal than the specific fire-based cooking, picnics with no fire were also just as popular.

An important by-product of cooking and eating communally outdoors is that food education can naturally take place. It links the outdoor origins of food to the overall outdoor learning experience (I had not understood why so many school outdoor adventure camps start and end the day in a canteen and not outdoors, until I researched the history and purpose of canteens-a future blog maybe!?). Being outdoors is more likely to encourage physical activity for many people and those with limited mobility surprisingly reported not being put off from outdoor spaces in the same way that they felt excluded from entering certain buildings designed for a similar community purpose. (Similarly some families experiencing poverty, expressed a discomfort or distrust of activities in buildings "designed for communities", where they reported feeling observed or judged, particularly if these buildings also housed professionals from particular agencies or authorities.)

I am convinced of the benefits of outdoor cooking, eating and sharing in Outdoor Learning and it has certainly revolutionised my practice. We now provide food as default for all outdoor activity and wherever possible this is cooked communally. This is maybe one of the only ways to give everyone a ticket who wants one-provide food as default. In needing to source more food to provide activity and events that are accessible to as many people as possible, we have also become a part of the food waste community and have added an extra environmental edge to our work.

Now, making food central to what we do in our outdoor adventures brings endless opportunities for learning. It is never an after-thought, it is tied up in where we adventure and how we adventure. The food is inextricably linked to our environment, our group cohesion, our personal well-being, our safety, our teamwork, the weather conditions and our knowledge and understanding of the nature around us.

This work began as a way to ensure that those who are experiencing poverty and have limited food resources can still take part, reducing the associated feelings of shame attached to their participation. We do not specify that outdoor events or sessions are for families or people who are financially struggling or need support because our sessions are actually for everyone and this is also the only way to reduce food poverty stigma. Our outdoor work is not designed to be only for people in poverty as this can be unitentionally stigmatising and shaming, everyone is welcome, and barriers to participation are removed as far as possible. You can't remove barriers if you are not aware they are there. Marcus Rashford, just helped more people to see what barriers are there. I can only hope to do the same. In our outdoor work, there is no invisible ticket required by the need to bring or have food, because providing food is now as much a default process in our outdoor practice as writing the risk assessments.

I hope you can understand that I couldn’t allow Marcus Rashford’s campaign to go by without starting a conversation about why it is so relevant to our outdoor practice.

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