AFC Unity is an indie women’s football club based in Sheffield. Since 2015, we have been running our Football for Food campaign, through which we collect food at our home games and events which is distributed to local food banks. So far we have collected 776kg of food at 16 events.
Our campaign is also about raising awareness regarding the reasons why food poverty and use of food banks has risen so significantly. There are approximately 40,000 people in Sheffield living in food poverty. Delays and changes to benefits remain the biggest causes of food bank use.
Empowerment is at the core of AFC Unity. Empowering women is one of our four main values. Our commitment to empowerment shapes our coaching style, football philosophy and community activities. This ethos is important when engaging historically disempowered groups – culturally and socio-economically – such as women, and creating role models with systematic and cultural change.
Another Sheffield-based initiative is the Our Fair City campaign, an outcome of the Sheffield Fairness Commission, which aims to make Sheffield the fairest city in Britain. For us at AFC Unity, a fairer city very much needs empowered communities and people as the driving force behind local activities, decisions and change. Part of the Our Fair City campaign is its Champions scheme, which embraces this empowerment ethos by encouraging the citizens and organisations of Sheffield to take concrete steps towards making Sheffield a fairer, more equal place to live.
But there are limits to how much a local, empowered response can do within the context of national policy. With Sheffield City Council’s central government grant cut by more than 50% since 2010, the resources and finances available to support such community-driven responses are under pressure. Of course, with services and activities stopped or severely restricted, more social and economic problems arise, including food poverty. More local autonomy over resources and finances – not just rhetoric – is needed to really ensure empowerment of communities and groups in a long-term, sustainable way to make Sheffield fairer.
This relates to the need to change the way our economy works. There is too much focus on profit and too many private interests shaping society, activities and services. A good example is the increasingly corporate structures and culture of professional football. This is something that we at AFC Unity are directly opposed to. It also links into food production, as monopolised, big chain supermarkets dominate our high streets and price out our local market. A lot of this food is wasted. According to Love Food Hate Waste, as a nation we throw away 15 million tonnes of food every year, with almost 50% of this coming from our homes, while food prices have increased by 12% in real terms over the last five years.
This is where community food responses such as the Real Junk Food Project, a food waste campaign creating meals made entirely from waste or surplus food, become really important.
There is nothing sustainable, autonomous and empowering about national policy which forces people to rely on food banks. But the community spirit that has helped create these invaluable food banks can be harnessed in projects like the Real Junk Food Project and other schemes which look at taking back food production, provision and distribution through local community control, empowering communities and groups to make real change.
These long-term, locally-driven food responses are important for putting people in control of their food, but this requires support and a different national policy direction. In this sense, there will always be a place for our Football for Food campaign, with the similarities between football and food having the potential to bring people together. But food banks are not part of a fair society. In a fair society, we wouldn’t be collecting food via our campaign for local food banks, because they would not exist.
To explore these issues in greater detail, come along to The Fight For Fairer Food discussion event, hosted by the Our Fair City campaign as part of Festival of Debate, on 18 November at Sharrow Old Junior School. Entrance is free, with a meal included.