We often think of art as a way of escaping the realities of everyday life. Importantly, however, it can also help shine a light on some of society’s most pressing issues. As this difficult year draws to a close, Learning Officer Lynsey Merrick reflects on how the rise in food poverty has given new resonance to a 19th-century painting on display in Aberdeen Art Gallery.
Public Health Scotland defines food poverty as ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so’. It is a pressing issue in our modern society but was also a reality for many people throughout history. This is illustrated by the painting 'A Frugal Meal' by Aberdeen-born artist Alexander Mackenzie, which is on display in Gallery 10: French Impressions.
In the painting, a young peasant girl gently blows over a spoonful of her dinner to cool it down. Scenes of domestic life were increasingly popular in Scotland in the 19th century and this artwork was exhibited at least four times in the two years after it was painted in 1888.
The child in the painting is placed on one side of the composition which allows the viewer to give equal attention to the modest soup pot and pieces of bread on the table. The realities of poverty are made clear not only in the painting’s title but also in the girl’s clothing and the crumbling plaster and torn reproduction of a painting on the wall behind her. However, the innocence and charm of the child can make us look past her circumstances.
One of the great powers of art is that it can shine a light on some of the more pressing issues in society. When I discuss this painting with a group of learners, I use the opportunity to highlight the issue of child poverty in Scotland. The statistics available from the Scottish Government make for alarming reading. Around 230,000 Scottish children - that’s almost one in four - are officially recognised as living in poverty. To put this figure in context, in 2014 the population of Aberdeen was 229,000.
Of this number, 64% of the children living in poverty are from working households. In 2014-19, people from non-white minority ethnic groups were more likely to be living in relative poverty. The reality is that not all work pays enough to lift a family above the poverty threshold.
During lockdown, while my family and I stayed safe at home, the most repeated phrase was, “Mum, I’m hungry, what is there to eat?”. Although the kids may not always have been too happy with some of my responses - sweetie strawberry laces do not count as one of the five a day - they never went hungry. They have never gone hungry. Thousands of children in Scotland today will either not have enough food to eat or will eat less nutritious food as it is cheaper to buy and is more filling. The 2015 Scottish Government Long-Term Monitoring of Health Inequalities report highlights serious long-lasting and wide-ranging consequence for children living with food poverty.
We have all heard about the rise in the use of food banks over the past decade, but we may not be aware of how serious the problem is. In February this year, before we could imagine the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, A Menu for Change and the Independent Food Aid Network reported that more than 1,000 emergency food parcels are distributed each day in Scotland. Over an 18-month period services in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire handed out 30,448 three-day emergency food parcels. These figures represent only the tip of the iceberg of those experiencing food poverty, with people often skipping meals or going without instead of using a food bank.
Covid-19 made the situation even worse for so many people. There are a number of agencies working to feed and support people in need of help. Food Poverty Action Aberdeen coordinates food banks in the city and work with partners such as CFINE, Instant Neighbour Trust and Aberdeen Cyrenians. As Christmas approaches, could we all do more to support these services?
Alexander Mackenzie painted 'A Frugal Meal' over 100 years ago. I wonder what he would make of his country in 2020, and the increasing number of poor and hungry children living in it.
Blog by Lynsey Merrick, Formal Learning Officer