Using action learning to improve responses to food insecurity in Scotland

A Menu for Change is working intensively in three local authority areas – Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife – to support local stakeholders to review and improve current practice and develop models of intervention that address the underlying causes of food insecurity to prevent repeat crises.

Since October 2017, our project officers have been meeting with small groups in each area – with representatives from local authorities, the Scottish Welfare Fund, advice services, emergency food providers, community food initiatives and people with lived experience of food insecurity – to support the identification of local action to local challenges.

We’re using action learning sets as a method of engaging the people directly involved in responses to acute food insecurity to consider practical ways these responses can better support people to access cash, rights and food in a crisis.

What is action learning?

Action learning provides problem-solving time for people with busy schedules. It is an opportunity for personal learning and development and insight into how others achieve different solutions.

Action learning sets become groups of individuals who are, for a period of time, mentors for each other. They support and challenge each other to reflect on the issues each person brings to the group, and they offer some accountability for the actions a presenter agrees to take.

How does it work?

We are working with groups that have 9-10 members in each area. We wanted a wide range of perspectives and views in the room and also wanted to ensure everyone involved was able to offer something valuable to the discussions.

Each month, our sets gather in Dundee City, Kilmarnock and Levenmouth to work through an issue or challenge brought by members of the group.

Everyone sits in a circle, and one person presents. The rest of the group listens to the presentation without interruption and then asks open questions to help the presenter reach a deeper understanding of the issue. There are no tables, pens or paper – all the focus is on the presenter and helping them to think through their challenge.

After about 30-40 minutes, the presentation and questioning finish and the presenter is asked to identify actions that came from the discussion that they’d like to be accountable for pursuing.

Since the other set members are only allowed to ask questions – rather than provide advice, suggestions or guidance – during the main part of the discussion, there is a reflection round at the end. This provides time for each person to share their thoughts and feelings about what they heard or what they will take away for their own practice and to offer encouragement and support to the person who presented.

Finally, all set members have an opportunity to identify actions that they will take away, either as an individual to their own organisation or as a group.

Why use action learning?

Ultimately, A Menu for Change wants referral pathways to be clearer, faster and better coordinated in local  areas so that people in crisis can access the financial support they’re entitled to, prevent future crises and, if it is still needed,  have a wider choice of food in an emergency.

Our action learning sets bring together stakeholders from across statutory, voluntary and community sectors and include representatives with relevant experience and influence to help identify and take local action.

In some cases, the participants meet in other contexts, but our aim is to provide a new way for people to explore and address the challenges they face.

What have been the benefits?

We’ve had some really encouraging feedback so far.

Participants in Dundee have told us that the format makes them feel comfortable to ask challenging questions without anyone feeling like they’re interrogating each other and that they appreciate the chance to discuss relevant and timely issues in a supportive environment.

In fact, having the dedicated time each month to think about specific challenges has led to ‘eureka moments’ for some participants, where solutions to problems have been discovered, and tangible, meaningful actions have been taken away as a result.

One presentation about lack of staff and volunteer capacity in an over-stretched community centre led to the identification of a wide range of changes needed in their referral process to ensure that everyone seeking a food parcel referral was receiving all the relevant advice and support they were entitled to.

Membership of the groups has also been a key strength: participants feel they have gained a deeper understanding of what other services in their area are doing, and there have been practical benefits for sharing issues and solutions with people who have the power to address some of the challenges that are being discussed.

Although there have been some challenges, such as the difficulty of building trust within the group if people aren’t able to commit to attending each meeting, it is clear that participants are finding the structure and focus on actions a useful way to engage with the broader issues around responding to food insecurity.

Next steps

A Menu for Change’s Action Learning Sets will continue to meet monthly until September this year. We hope that the solutions identified in our groups will help provide new ideas and models to inspire others around the country so we can reduce the need for emergency food aid by ensuring people in crisis access cash, rights and food when they need it most.

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For more information on action learning, visit Action Learning Associates.

Author: Chelsea Marshall, Project Officer