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Blog 5: Is anyone listening? Two contrasting views of food poverty, 180917

In a radio phone-in programme last week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees–Mogg was asked to comment on the recent reports showing that the number of food banks in the UK has been rising sharply and they now number over 2,000[i]. He stated that ‘to have charitable support given people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens, I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good compassionate country we are.’[ii].

A number of Tory MPs, both during the present and the previous Coalition governments, have made rather similar points, indeed a few years ago food banks were held up by the then Prime Minister  as a good  example of the ‘Big Society’.

Some social scientists such as David Riches[iii] and Stephan Selke[iv] have criticized such growing dependence on food banks, arguing that their existence leads to both the normalization and commodification of poverty. Others such as the social geographers Cloke, May and Williams (2016) have taken a more sympathetic, albeit not uncritical view of food banks as existing in a space they term ‘in the mean time’, that is pending the major changes in government policy and the economy required to do away with them.

In some ways this latter viewpoint is not so very different from that of most food bank organisations which consider that they are there as a stop-gap and should not become a permanent feature of the social landscape.

But the major question is what can be done to change the current situation and who is going to do it. In my own research on food poverty over the last three years, I have interviewed a number of trustees of and donors to food banks (and other organizations seeking to alleviate food poverty). While many of them express some degree of outrage at the present state of affairs in ‘one of the world’s richest countries’ (a phrase I heard many times), few were advocating any kind of political activism. Indeed, some noted that such a course of action might risk the charitable status of the organisation or could result in division among the volunteers. Fewer still thought that there would be public support for raising taxes to enable, for example, higher benefit payments and so less dependence on food banks.

Perhaps food poverty is one of many instances in which the personal is political and who you are determines what you see and what, if anything, you do about it.

Much rests on whether people consider that poverty is inevitable, that the state cannot deal with all of its aspects or victims (a claim also made by Rees-Mogg in the same interview) and that it therefore behoves good citizens to do something about it. But such arguments may risk addressing merely the symptoms of food poverty, not its many causes.

One of the recent precipitating factors in the upsurge of food bank use is Universal Credit, the government’s new flagship programme to reform the benefit system and ‘make work pay’. The Libdems have already called it a ‘train wreck’ and at their recent party conference, at which  its work and pensions spokesperson argued for it to be halted ‘for a major overhaul’.[v] Similarly many charities, housing associations and local authorities have expressed their concerns to the government in the strongest terms about what is happening in areas where Universal Credit has already been rolled out. These include not only lower benefits overall, but also at least six weeks wait and often much longer before these can be accessed. The consequences include greater personal debt and rent arrears leading to homelessness[vi]. Both the Trussell Trust[vii] and the Citizens Advice Bureau[viii] have warned that the situation for many is disastrous and leading to destitution. One Pembrokeshire food bank wrote as follows:

The 6+ week waiting period for a first payment can contribute to debt, mental health issues and rent arrears. The effects of these can last even after people receive their Universal Credit payments, as bills and debts pile up.

Small wonder then that the demand for food banks continues to increase.

During the last three years I have often asked myself why I am doing this research, and I am sure many others have too. We academics all like to think that our research will ‘make a difference’, that we will be able to show what is happening and why and thus what needs to be changed. Yet there is now so much data available about food poverty, its reasons and consequences, and so little change in policies, that researchers may well wonder who if anyone is listening, as the situation goes from bad to worse.

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Blog 4: Making a meal of it (090917)


Anthropologists have written a lot about what constitutes a meal and the difference between meals and snacks in different cultures. Meals, they suggest, have courses, snacks do not. Meals contain a certain combination of items (e.g. potatoes, meat and vegetables, or rice, dahl and curry), snacks do not need to follow such rules. People talk about ‘proper meals’, which usually means that they obey the grammatical rules of meals, which are taken sitting down, and often with other people.

I thought about this issue again when I remembered the words of one woman who is a food-bank user. She complained ‘It’s very difficult to make a meal with the items you get given’. Others noted that they had to find additional ingredients to make what they considered to be a ‘proper meal’ out of their food parcel ingredients.

I was to discover this for myself when I joined the challenge issued by one of the food banks I had been visiting. The challenge consisted of being sponsored to spend a week (6 days actually) living off a typical food bank parcel. This would not only raise money for the food bank from sponsors, but also was a minor exercise in participant observation, one of anthropology’s favourite methods. When the food bank manager heard that my husband was also joining in, he wrote that he would issue some extra food but ‘don’t expect double rations’. Of course not, since as is well known, two can live as cheaply as one!

The food bank manager sent us an exhortation just before we started:

If you haven’t already, make sure you’ve rummaged through your food parcel and had a look at what meals you can prepare, so that you don’t get too hungry. You can ONLY eat what you find in the box, and plenty of tap water. Remember, you’re not alone. Thousands of families across the country live the #FoodParcelChallenge week after week.  

As we were living in a rural community at the time, I wrote to the manager and asked if foraged foods like nettles were permissible. He said that would be cheating, as not all urban dwellers would have access to such plants (or know that they were edible) and several of the readers of the daily blog I wrote on my Facebook page agreed with him. Apparently he also got a request from some others doing the challenge asking if wild mushrooms were OK – he said not. I reflected that it would be hard to find any in May in London!

Here’s the ration list we got.

Our shopping list for the food challenge

  • Milk (long-life) 1 litre
  • Juice/Squash 500ml
  • Sugar/Sweetener
  • Tea/Coffee 25 bags, small instant coffee
    Jam/Marmalade/Honey (1 jar)
  • Cereal/Oats/Porridge (small)
  • Biscuits/Crackers (1 packet)
  • Cereal Bars
  • Instant Noodles
  • Rice 500gm
  • Pasta 500gm
  • Cooking Oil (500ml)
  • Pasta Sauce/Curry Sauce
  • Lentils (yellow/red) 500gm
  • Soup (tins/boxes) 2
  • Chick Peas/Kidney Beans 2 (tins)
    2 tins tomatoes
  • Fruit & Vegetables (2 tins)
  • Stock Cubes (vegetarian)
  • Salt/Pepper
    Rice Pudding/Custard

It was very different from the sort of food we normally eat, which includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. When we laid out our weekly shop on the dining table, and added the food parcel items at one end, the whole amount covered the table but, when we removed our normal shop, only a small amount remained for the Food Challenge, and it all fitted neatly into a plastic, mouse-proof box, ready to start the challenge the following week.

We felt that a way had to be found for the two of us not only to make it last the required length of time but also to adapt it to the structure of our daily meals. We were determined that we were going to eat proper meals, we did not propose to graze! Lionel set to work and came up with a set of mens which looked like this:

This menu was adequate for a short period of time, but not very enjoyable. It was however made more bearable by the fact that we did it together. In the previous year, someone taking the same food challenge wrote that she had guests staying in her house whom she had to feed normally, while she ate food like this. I admired her greatly! One of the most difficult days of the challenge for me was when interviewing someone in a café, who chomped her way through quite a large meal while I sipped my tea slowly.

Here’s Day 1 of my Facebook page blog.

‘I usually wake up early and like to start my day with a cup of really good coffee. Today was different because it was instant coffee and UHT milk, which was not quite the same. Lionel opted for tea instead and on tasting it said he thought he might have to add sugar.

After gym and swim, I am ready for breakfast. Lionel has doled out the porridge and added lots of water. It is fine although it’s a bit different from our usual porridge which has various things added including bananas. In fact I can almost agree with Lady Jennings that everyone should have porridge for breakfast – she says it only costs 4p per person. You’ll remember that she said that the problem with the poor is that they don’t know how to cook but she had to eat her words! ( see

In response to our blog, we got a few comments and questions:

  1. Why these particular items? Answer. Because they are typical of what people donate to food banks and the items have to be long-life because most food banks don’t have refrigerators. So lots of tins, packets and bottles! We were allowed to specify vegetarian.
  2. Many of the items are heavy – how can people carry this amount? The answer is that food bank clients do struggle with their food parcels, especially if they have to travel by public transport. Food banks in cities do not generally deliver, although some food banks will send a volunteer to help carry stuff out to a car or to the bus stop, while food banks in rural areas might deliver.

Halfway through the challenge, I wrote about some of our thoughts about eating from a food parcel:

‘But it’s also the awareness of the fact that we are actually really fortunate. I got an email last week with a case study of a man who only ate every other day. Two weeks ago I witnessed a distribution at a food bank where about 20 people were waiting for food. A late comer was an elderly man who came in with a walker. I asked him if I could help him to anything but the food bank manager told me that he was not well enough to cook and mostly lived on sandwiches, so they only gave him food which could be eaten without heating or cooking.’

At the end of the six days, we wrote our last blog:

What did we most dislike? Pat – dry Ryvita, Lionel – instant coffee (actually I also hate rice pudding and custard, reminiscent of the school dinners of my youth. Fortunately Lionel did not mind them).

We got to the end of our 6 days with no ill effects and thought about the limitations of a food bank diet: monotony, lack of ingredients for creativity and imagination, blandness of taste.

But – we feel OK, we chose to do this (unlike most others), so far no ill effects and we raised #550 plus gift aid for the food bank.