Primary page content

Blog 10. Food Poverty and Ethics: Telling it like it is?

In my research on food poverty, I’ve taken lots of picture in food banks: shelves of food and food parcels; volunteers collecting, sorting, and date labelling food; attended seminars about food poverty and volunteers’ celebratory parties. However, I have never taken pictures of food bank clients. In this respect, I have followed the same rules as most FBs themselves and indeed of much of the national press: clients should not be identifiable. No ‘Benefits Street’ poverty pornography.

This fits with the UK anthropologists’ Ethical Code: that the confidentiality and anonymity of research participants should be preserved at all times ( Such a view was reinforced early in my research when the manager of a food bank in Wales told me that she frequently gets requests from the media for interviews with clients. Most refuse, but one woman did agree to be interviewed on camera and explain why she had landed up at a food bank. When the interview was screened on TV, she was subsequently shunned by her neighbours: ‘you brought shame on our town’.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a bit more about this. One reason was my visit this summer to another food bank in west Wales which I’ve visited many times. As usual the manager was very busy and trying to do several things at once, including talk to me. A social worker arrived and said she needed a food parcel for one of her clients, so he went off to deal with this, telling me that I might like to look at a masters’ dissertation on photography which he had recently been sent. The student had taken the food bank as a case study and there were quite a few portraits of users, taken with their consent but without their names. When the manager returned, he told me that the dissertation had been recommended for publication, saying that he thought this was a good idea so that more people would see the realities of food poverty.

A second reason for thinking more about the anonymity of clients was the request to assist a masters’ student in journalism to produce a short film about food poverty as part of the requirements for his degree. I asked the manager of another Welsh food bank if she would agree to be interviewed and filmed. She would, and so would one of her deputies, formerly a food bank client herself. In return the MA student produced an excellent short video for the food bank to put on its website, as well as a longer film for his degree requirement.

A third event which provoked thought about anonymity was attendance at a conference on food poverty where some of the speakers came from outside the UK and had sent video-clips in advance. For me, the most striking one was from an organisation in Philadelphia called ‘Witnesses to Hunger’ ( and a blog: Also several videos on Youtube). Although it was set up by an academic epidemiologist, this is an organisation in which the ‘real experts’ are considered to be the people suffering from food poverty i.e. the clients who are also members of the organisation and help to run it. Their voices are powerful and have even reached up to Congress. They do not need to hide or disguise their identities because they are the ones speaking (and speaking up) for the organisation of which they are active members.

There are few such organisations here in the UK, although Scotland is something of an exception. With the support of the Scottish government, the Scots are moving away from a food bank model to forms of food aid which involve the community and which take place alongside many other activities. See Nourish Scotland and its Menu for Change programme, as well as its Dignity in Practice Report

So maybe food bank clients could be encouraged and supported to tell their stories more publicly. After all, perhaps the biggest contribution to public awareness of food poverty and the reasons for it has come from the BAFTA award-winning film I, Daniel Blake, which was shot in the food bank which had been the subject of Kayleigh Garthwaite’s important book ‘Hunger Pains’ (Policy Press 2016). If we had more testimonies, more witnesses, more experts speaking from lived experience, might aspects of the current situation change? Not just more food donated, whether by individuals, groups or the food industry, but real changes in public policy which would improve income and enable more people to afford to buy sufficient food.

The exhibition ‘Behind Closed Doors’, a collaboration between an academic researcher on food poverty (Jon May), several photographers (James Lane, Huw Nicholls and Ursula Kelly) and a graphic designer (John Reeves) uses portraits of food bank clients (obviously with their consent) as well as of the kind of food they eat (the dominant theme is the ubiquitous jam sandwich) to make the case. The portraits powerfully reveal the clients as real people. This exhibition has been shown to decision makers in Wales at the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff and will shortly be shown in Westminster before the reading of the Food Insecurity Bill ( on the progress of which we’ll be reporting in a later blog.