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Dr Sin'ad Furey

16 November 2021, 2:28 UTC Share

Academic-Policy Engagement: Representing the voices of others

Against a backdrop of escalating food insecurity in the United Kingdom, my research policy engagement work has strategically positioned me to advocate effectively and meaningfully for those experts by experience, enduring food insecurity in Northern Ireland, who have entrusted me to represent their voice.

Food insecurity – difficulty accessing or affording food in sufficient quantities – is a significant issue facing people today. It is not solely a developing nations’ problem, but something that remains on the rise in the United Kingdom currently. Food affordability has been compounded by the cost of living crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. People are struggling with higher food prices and reduced food availability, and I have been working with policy stakeholders to provide the evidence base to inform the development of practical and sustainable solutions. 

Sometimes it’s about having the courage to proactively seek policymakers’ support. In the UK we know that food insecurity exists, but in Northern Ireland (NI) our evidence base during the pandemic was very limited; and so, together with the charity UK Food Foundation and Department for Communities in NI, we conducted government-endorsed food insecurity research during Covid-19, research that would not otherwise have happened in NI. 

Other times it’s about being an informed neutral party. Across NI, local authorities are advancing their anti-poverty initiatives, and I have led complementary food insecurity research across different council areas in the region. As a result of these efforts, I was tasked by Belfast City Council, as a trusted and respected player, to facilitate conversations with stakeholders across greater Belfast to arrive at a strategic and evidence-informed, co-designed action plan to address food insecurity in the council area. 

What is common across my policy engagement experiences has been the importance of having an independent evidence base, successful collaborative partnerships across the public and community/voluntary sectors, and the passion to present your research to different audiences to ensure that you advocate meaningfully for those experts by experience who entrusted you with their voice. 

Independent and rigorous research: In the absence of relevant data on household food insecurity, my research has provided unique detail on the scale of hunger in the UK, which has been used to support calls for UK-wide food insecurity measurement, and in so doing has raised popular and political awareness of the existence of food poverty. My food affordability research has informed national policy making by providing part of the evidence base that a UK coalition of social justice campaigners, including the Independent Food Aid Network and Children in NI, used to influence the UK government to measure food insecurity in a standardised way. The independence, rigour and professionalism of the research have been essential in forming the evidence base upon which change can be justified. Having the research published in peer-reviewed outputs has been important to give policymakers the reassurance they need that the research is reliable and valid.

Successful partnership working: I also cannot overestimate the importance of successful partnership working. When your research area is food insecurity (or similar), the media, on whom you rely for enhanced visibility of your work, require living case studies of those affected by the very policy area you are investigating. Having stakeholder partners who work in the community supports your research effort, because they can provide access to people for whom unaffordable or inaccessible food is their reality, and who are interested and empowered to speak out to humanise the statistics and accounts that your research has concluded. This is best achieved by building on your pre-existing contacts across the subject area, and doing so from the outset of your work, because using the principles of early engagement and operating via a ‘no surprises’ policy are evidence of respect for your partners and audience. 

Meaningful advocacy: The research dissemination effort that follows such partnership working is equivalent to a promotional ‘talking tour’, advocating for those experts by experience who have entrusted me with their voice across different media, including meetings with policy officials, submissions to consultations and parliamentarians’ calls for evidence, international conferences, media (including local television and radio outlets), blogs, events and social media. 

Dr Sinéad Furey is a Senior Lecturer on the Consumer Management and Food Innovation undergraduate degree programme in Ulster University Business School. She researches in the food policy areas of food poverty, retail food promotions and food and sustainability, with the aim of supporting policy makers in their published commitments in the cross-departmental obesity prevention strategy: “A fitter future for all”, to make healthier and sustainable food the easy, accessible and affordable choice for all consumers.

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