Jim Parle – do you live in an urban food desert in Birmingham?

Jim Parle is a GP and Professor of Primary Care at Birmingham Medical School.  His experience is that too many of the poorest areas of Birmingham are what he calls “deserts” when it comes to good nutrition and good food – and that’s not mum’s fault – it’s the way we plan and structure out cities.  See his initial thoughts as part of the New Optimist Forum below…

22 responses to “Jim Parle – do you live in an urban food desert in Birmingham?”

  1. Martin Guest says:

    I agree with Dr Parle up to a point but I believe an even greater issue lies with both a lack and a confusion of nutritional education.
    Many people can’t or won’t study pretty basic nutrition, but for those that do there is often conflicting advice on what we should consume due to misinformation or exaggeration of the benefits of certain foods from the suppliers.
    Local shops will provide what their customers want, if the customers were educated to demand better quality food I’m sure it would be provided.

  2. Largely the central point is that people know what is best for them nutritionally and I don’t think there is much confusion about it. The main difficulty is priorities, if you have a complex and difficult life, you are poor and on your own, or worse have family problems and even violence at home – nutritious food is not the priority, surviving is. My concern is the same whether it is about food or general services, the perspective in understanding the problem comes from a point of privilege ie: education about nutrition is important to me, so why is it not important to everyone. Until people who design services understand priorities from other perspectives the problem will persist.

  3. Kate Cooper says:

    Thank you both for your comments. Interestingly, only this morning on the Today programme, there was this at 7:34:

    Research published in the journal BMJ Open claims that 4,000 deaths a year could be prevented if the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland eat the same diet as the English. Peter Scarborough, from the department of public health at Oxford University, and Mike Lean, professor of human nutrition at Glasgow University, discuss the findings.


  4. Nick Booth says:

    Vicki – what do you mean about understanding problems from other perspectives? How are services not doing this?

  5. Some are, but a lot of health and well-being services are designed and developed by people whose lives are privileged, by this I mean they have their basic needs met, they are sheltered safe and secure. In this perspective food is key to long, healthy and happy lives and, from this perspective, that is within reach. However if you do not have your basic needs met, food is about surviving and getting through the week – long healthy and happy lives are too far away to be relevant at this time. Of course that is what everyone wants, but it is overwhelming and services largely fail to take account of this. So services are designed from a starting point which is not relevant to a lot of people, services are designed based on the assumption that everyone’s lives are ‘all-right’ and healthy eating is the only problem to be solved.
    This week we are delivering food parcels to pregnant moms so they can eat enough for 3 days, do they need educating? they know a lot more than I do!

  6. As a Programme Manager for the Pregnancy Outreach Service I feel there is a point to be made. There are clients who access the Pregnancy Outreach Worker Service for social and emotional support who due to various circumstances cannot eat. A client informed her support worker on Monday that she had not had any food for a week. This is due to not being in receipt of any money and is away from her family to due her pregnancy kept away from them .This currently is not an uncommon situation at present. Pregnancy Outreach Workers are spending may hours seeking free food, clothing and essential items for clients from a variety of services such as Helping Hands, Narthex and Food bank. The food bags we are currently passing onto clients are keeping pregnant women feed for between 3 – 5 days. Without a doubt if it was not for the Pregnancy Outreach Workers spending hours and hours accessing the above mentioned clients would be literally not eating any food.

  7. Kate Cooper says:

    What both of you, Vicky and Michelle, are saying is shocking. Largely invisible, too. What do you think we could be doing? Raising awareness? (If so, how?) And anything tangible, practical, local in the shorter term?

    Can the New Optimists Forum play a part?

  8. Eleanor McGee says:

    Jim Parle has a point, and Vicki and Michelle make another good point. We have a city designed to promte unhealthy choices, and it is not right that healthy food costs more than less healthy food (compare white sliced bread with wholegrain), and the differential is greater in low income areas (if you can find the healthier alternatives). Should we help the growing number of disadvantaged to make the best of what they can access, expecting them to have better cooking skills than the wealthy,or should we challegnge the system that leaves them in this position? I would argue that we need to do a bit of both: improve food skills (but don’t ask the poor to boil pulses for hours- we don’t do that), and support local retailers in low income areas to stock more fruit and veg (as in the Change4Life convenience stores work), as well as challenging Government policy that is pushing more people into poverty, even if they have a job. I know someone who works nights for the minumum wage, and was getting a third of his family’s rent paid by Housing Benefit. His wages went up by £4 a week in September, and his Housing Benefit went down by £11 per week in October.Is that making work pay?

  9. In response to Kate – I agree raising awareness is really important, particularly amongst those who make policy decisions which, in turn, inform how services are designed and delivered. We have many many women who want to talk about their experiences, we can practically help them to do that, but we need them to be heard in the right places – could you help with that?

  10. Donna Evill says:

    The response from Eleanor is very accurate in terms of the availability of unhealthy food being more readily available and cheaper than nutritious and healthy food. Take a look around the local areas, especially the deprived areas of a city. For miles you will see a string of fast food shops, and possibly only 1 fruit and veg shop.
    The clients that my service supports have greater concerns and issues than eating their 5 a day, it’s all well and good for the media to throw this down the throats of the community, but how practical is it for them to actually put it into practice? the real answer is it’s not!
    Vicki, you are correct, we can get the messages from the local community about what they need to enable them to eat more healthily, and you rightly say ‘Who will listen to those messages?’ from the ‘real’ people. Who is it that we need to relay these messages to? Organisations like the one I work for are all about spreading the community needs, but it has to go in the right direction to make a real difference!

  11. jim parle says:

    there are some things that are reasonably do-able and quick, and others less so; and these can be structural (more allotments? There are only 40 or so allotment places in Bartley Green, 200 in Harborne, shurely shome mishtake? How about some guerrila gardening?)
    there are places which facilitate the use of other people’s gardens
    but meanwhile the parents have to battle against pernicious advertising for c..p fizzy drinks and high-sugar foods (heh, guess where the sweets are usually placed in supermarkets?)
    and some people don’t know the basics of nutrition (eat less meat, sugar, more greens; and don’t eat anything which a grannie wouldn’t recognise as food [apologies to Pollan for garbled quote: but you get the idea])
    schools (education obviously, plus school gardening?), local authorities (allotments, facilitatition, planning requirements)
    government (control over advertising, sponsorship, GET OUT OF INDUSTRY’S COSY POCKETS)
    ok, rant over

  12. Simon Harper says:

    For reference, some interesting links to recent stuff about food deserts:

    This piece from The Economist also mentions an article in the New England Journal of Medicine and a report published by Mari Gallagher:

    More from Mari Gallagher here in a TEDx talk and speaking at the CCMA (Consumer Co-operative Management Association) 2011 Conference:

  13. Kate Cooper says:

    Thanks very much, Simon. Useful stuff.

  14. Kate Cooper says:

    Could The New Optimists help these women’s voices be heard? TNO is a platform for scientists to engage with others, so not really the right place for what you’re talking about. However, let’s talk!

  15. john hilbourne says:

    Food is not just an instrument or commodity or nourishment. It is a medium of social exchange. Food poverty involves not only malnutrition, but also has consequences for social interaction. e.g. reciprocity, hospitality, status, e.g. breadwinner, parent. power. e.g matriarch. Therefore necessary to look at the role food plays in the social as well as the biological and economic spheres.

  16. Kate Cooper says:

    A really good point, John.

    I’d add in too, something about the power of the major food suppliers; see also this Podnosh blogpost written about the Forum, and the comments that follow: http://podnosh.com/blog/2011/11/03/a-new-form-of-planning-gain-supermarkets-share-their-data-with-the-public-sector

  17. […] video above is of Jim Parle (GP and Professor of Primary Care at Birmingham Medical School), speaking at the New Optimist Forum […]

  18. Ladybird says:


    The single, most do-able, structural change would be to lift people out of poverty by making benefit levels bear some realistic relation to the costs of living and the costs of food and energy bills. I lead an urban agriculture initiative in Sandwell, but I am of the view that more allotments/school gardens, etc, are very desirable and can be very powerful in the messages they convey, but are completely useless at the scale they are currently practised in tackling diet related ill health at population level. Oh, and lots of people don’t know the basics of nutrition and can’t cook. The difference is that people in Harborne can get in their Audis and drive to M&S food halls and load up with lovely stuff, while people in Bartley Green are lucky if they own a car. When you have not got enough money to put on the gas card to cook, chicken and/or chips are a pretty rational choice to feed a hungry family.

    The signature shops of poverty (you see them everywhere) are: Bargain Booze, BetFred (or suchlike) fried chicken and kebab shops, payday advance shops, shops selling fags, sweets and lottery tickets (and more bargain booze); and, if you are lucky, a chemist to sell you the drugs for the illnesses you suffer from because you are poor.

    We have to take care about preaching about more allotments and ‘ejukashun’ for the poor. It is no wonder there are more allotments in Harborne than in Bartley Green. Think about it.

    Also, our experience in Sandwell with food access mapping shows that yes, food deserts do exist in that some people have very poor access to the ingredients of a healthy diet within waking distance, but then what? They describe (part) of the problem, but what do you do about it once you have that information?

    And Hi @Eleanor, we are still on the case, starting third site next year!

  19. Annie says:

    This debate is very interesting. I am a general manager at City hospital and live in the Jewellery Quarter. I set up 24 Carrots monthly Food Market of the Jewellery Quarter over two years ago with local residents to bring good quality, locally produced food to the quarter and to create a sense of community. I am now leading a community group as a local resident with City Hospital to create “Soho Urban Roots” Community Garden on City Hospital site. In a derelict walled garden (1/4 acre with two enormous green houses and raised beds, we want to provide green space for patients, local residents and staff to enjoy and for some to grow their own veg and plants. We plan to sustain the garden through the sale of produce at local “Pop Up” markets offering young people living in Soho/Ladywood wards a chance to develop business, entrepreneurial and horticultural skills. We aim to open in April 2012 and I would value the opportunity to get your views at this planning stage.

  20. Kate Cooper says:

    I didn’t know about this — and I think it’s a very exciting venture for lots of reasons. I’d love to talk to you about it.

  21. Annie says:

    Great. How can I best contact you?

  22. […] Kabir things it’s very clear that where food is cheap there is a chance that the ingredients are sub-standard.  As a restauranter in Birmingham he thinks it’s time to widen the conversation about thwta food ought to cost – not and easy thing to do though – especially for those who live food deserts. […]

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