For the past five months I served as a visiting scholar to the University of Ghent in Belgium. The link between food insecurity, a particular focus on my work in North Carolina, and larger overall economic insecurity issues has been getting increased focus across a number of European countries. Belgium is much smaller in geographic size, but has nearly the same population as North Carolina, and similar overall poverty rates. It has both wealthy urban areas, and regions that have struggled with the decline of coal production and other industries over the past several decades. It has touristic centers touting high end fashion stores and gastronomic delights.
Yet Brussels, its capital and one of main homes of the European Parliament, struggles with a poverty rate of over 30% and there are strong disparities from border to border, not dissimilar to those seen here. While Belgium may seem a world away from North Carolina, many of the issues facing local CED officials are similar.
My goal was to use this opportunity to explore what lessons Belgium could hold for North Carolina in terms of CED through the lens of its local response to food insecurity. As a visiting scholar, I made standard academic presentations, but my efforts focused on speaking with local government and non-profit practitioners.
These visits included:
- Two social cafés, a pantry (with associated shower facilities), and three non-profit thrift stores in Ghent, Belgium, an urban, university and historical city of 250,000.
- The Social Huis (Social House – a local government all-inclusive agency housing all social services) and its associated city-run social grocery store in Merelbeke, a small town outside of Ghent.
- Six of Belgium’s eight food banks covering almost all regions of the country, stretching from high to lower poverty areas.
- A comparison visit to a large food bank in the Eindhoven, a large industrial city in the Netherlands, just over the northeastern border.
- Interviews with the leaders of the Belgian Association of Food Banks, The European Federation of Food Banks (shown in photo with his home Food Bank) and The European Union’s Fund for Economically Disadvantaged (FEAD), Belgian Authority.
One of my first observations is that practicalities of local level CED work is not terribly different between Belgium and North Carolina. There is a focus on employment policies, job training, business growth, education, community development and social welfare. Affordable housing is a significant issue, and recycling is a priority.
Where one can see an immediate difference, however, is the over-arching theme of Social Europe, a term that seems to have caught fire, although that term is not well defined. It may be more appropriate to refer to differences in the social dimensions of the European Union (EU). A reflection paper from the European Commission released in April, 2017 states social dimensions address “how to sustain our standards of living, create more and better jobs, equip people with the right skills and create more unity within our society, in light of tomorrow’s society and world of work.” At first glance, social dimensions address specific work and social protections for individuals, but in reality are very broad, addressing issues from education to pensions. An overview of certain specific policies being discussed by the European Parliament under the umbrella of the term Social Europe was released in September, 2017. And as an overall framework, after two years of commentary and discussion, the European Pillar of Social Rights was adopted by EU institutions this past November in Sweden.
In an earlier blog, I introduced the concept of social inclusion as the CED approach in my area. In subsequent interviews, I was surprised at the breadth of its use – individuals suggested the social inclusion framework had been adopted across government services and used by citizens, non-profit organizations and business, not just applied to traditional (to us) social service/anti-poverty programs. It also was not targeted to a particular segment of the community (low-income) but was conceptualized as a right of everyone.
And probably most importantly, the perspective had a different orientation. The idea of social protection is reactionary – to serve as a social safety net if one falls on hard times. The idea of social inclusion is preventative and proactive – to serve as limiting the opportunity for hard times to happen for individuals in the first place through their participation in a strong community. The interviews suggested practitioners felt social inclusion involved avoiding policies or practices that are exclusionary as much as seeking to re-integrate citizens who have been previously excluded back into active community participation. There is a belief that maintaining an inclusionary community is easier than repairing the problems that result when people are excluded.
Three themes flowed from the interviews. The first is the use of material deprivation as a measure of need (does the person have housing, heat, food, transportation?), as opposed to using only income, the common criteria used in the United States. Non-profits and government agencies alike were concerned with the individuals’ actual living conditions rather than fixed level of income. This allows for individual and community based circumstances to be taken into account. In some of the food pantries, before receiving food, clients are invited to sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk about how things are going as a way to better understand underlying issues that lead to the need for food aid, as in these photos from a visit to a ‘social cafe’ and pantry. In the past year, conversations revealed that a number of clients were unable to take showers as they wished because their housing did not have hot water. The pantry has since added hot shower facilities and the issue of housing standards has been elevated to authorities.
The second was a focus on personal responsibility, with that idea that if someone were adequate participating in community life (have education, a job, social connections and interaction), they should be able to maintain a minimum acceptable living standard. When someone is not able to maintain that standard, it means examining whether or not the individual was using all resources available to them to meet their material needs, including wise use of available income, and if the individual still is unable to meet their material needs, whether or not the individual had appropriate participation in available government programs to get to a situation where those needs could be met, from job training to financial counseling and debt management to basic income support. Put another way, if the individual was being personally responsible and still unable to meet material needs, the community as a whole needed to take steps in improve the person’s situation by removing barriers that kept them from participating in community life. This was a team effort, with all players expected to do what was necessary to ‘win.’
The third flowed from the ‘team’ analogy. The government and nonprofits involved in food security were firm in understanding their distinct and limited roles (“We do not do that.” was a common statement), but there was also a clear expectation of respect and collaboration in helping each other in those separate roles. An example I saw repeated in multiple locations was the partnership in facilities – local governments did not collaborate directly with a food bank – in fact, the food bank staff would state firmly it was completely separate from the local government and vice versa. However, a city might provide the same food bank a vacant city building with a 15-year lease for 1 euro per year.
How valid are these observations? Can some of these ideas hold promise for CED in North Carolina? Future blogs will explore these concepts in more detail, with the continuation of interviews and research on these policies.