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Blog 11: On judging and being judged

Judgemental: critical, censorious, condemnatory, deprecating, disparaging, disapproving

I recently had a conversation with an advice worker and voucher holder who sees many food bank clients. She raised the issue of judgementalism, noting that while her own organisation stresses to its workers that it is not their job to judge clients, this still happens. Furthermore, when she has dealings with local officials and council members, remarks about those in poverty (including food poverty) are often disparaging: ‘ many people really have no idea how the other half lives and are not sympathetic. After all, they too are members of the public and they pick up the pervasive attitudes’.

Today with the ongoing roll-out of Universal Credit, we also know that there is an even more hostile environment for claimants. The same is true of food banks and their clients. This attitude is encouraged by much of the UK press (see Wells and Caraher 2014).

Some of the most judgemental comments come from a surprising source. Here is Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and food campaigner in an interview for the Radio Times flagging up a new TV series on eating economically:

“I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in [a previous series of his programme] Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

It may not have occurred to Jamie that a ‘massive’ tv may provide the only source of entertainment in households which cannot afford anything else. He was roundly criticised in some of the media and by charities working in the field of poverty.

At an early stage of my research, I was talking to the Chair of Trustees at a London food bank and we got on to this topic. This is what he said: ‘We had a client who was struggling with her food parcels so I helped her carry them to her car. To my astonishment, she had a Mercedes. She must have read my expression because she said “This car is all have and I’m living in it because I had to leave my home.” Since that time, I’ve been extra careful not to rush to judgement.’

Food banks and other organisations working in the field of aid for food poverty are encouraged to be different and volunteers trained to refrain from passing judgement on the clients. Instead they are exhorted to be empathetic and in my research I found that many of them are indeed just that. When I undertook the volunteer training, it was impressed upon us that it was not part of our job to condemn, we were there to help by giving food parcels in return for vouchers which had been acquired from other agencies after people demonstrated that they were in real need.

Even so, it is difficult for volunteers not to pass judgement. I have heard comments such as:

  • they can’t budget
  • they spend too much on drink, drugs or cigarettes,
  • too many young women get pregnant and become single mothers
  • it’s all because of the breakdown of the modern family

Here’s one volunteer in a London food bank complaining that a few clients abuse the food bank system:

‘We had a family with 5 kids. They came twice, then I saw them at the Christmas fair spending money and felt quite cross… Some people are in need when they first come, but some come repeatedly. We have a guy on the ‘blacklist’ who has been 18 times, he’s not looking after himself, he doesn’t really try, but his doctor keeps giving him vouchers.’

The sub-text of comments like these are ‘I am managing, even with difficulty, so why can’t they?’ It’s often difficult for volunteers to be aware of the back stories of clients with problems of low and uncertain income leading to debt or even eviction, as well as mental or physical health difficulties. Such problems are becoming even more common for a variety of reasons, not least the roll-out of Universal Credit with its long delays and the lack of help available.

But other volunteers in food banks are more positive about clients: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ was heard not infrequently, while the manager of one food bank told me: ‘Many of our clients come in off the poorest council estate in the area. Some of them do have issues with substance abuse. Since I live in the area myself and know many of them, quite honestly if I had their problems, I would be hitting the bottle too!’


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.

Blog 9. Food poverty in the long hot summer- West Wales 2018

A long hot summer in West Wales, with the tourists loving the sunshine and the farmers suffering from severe lack of water and grass. The brown land has now turned green again but the state of the weather further contributed to debates and concerns about the future of the farming industry in west Wales after Brexit.

What’s happening to food poverty in this area currently? During my stay of more than four months this summer, I visited several food banks (some more than once) and interviewed staff and volunteers, as well as seeing the new Community Fridges in two towns in Pembrokeshire and interviewing people in the organisation which has set them up. In addition, I talked to a wide range of people and read the local newspapers, focusing particularly on issues like Brexit, the Welsh Assembly and its policies. In addition, I have tried to keep abreast of the national scene via newsletters and websites (e.g. Trussell Trust and IFAN – Independent Food Aid Network).

There are quite a few changes happening, some welcome, some less so.
Predictably, demand for food aid has risen sharply here in west Wales, especially in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced. Organisations which help the food poor are awaiting September with dread, as that is when the roll-out of this new benefit system is likely to be completed in this area. The Trussell Trust has endorsed a hard-hitting report on the problems of Universal Credit carried out by the End Hunger campaign (, and other charities and campaigns, like Oxfam and IFAN, have also agreed with its findings.

All food banks now access food supplies to give out not only through donations from the public collected at supermarkets but also through the Fareshare Food Cloud system. This was set up in 2015 ( ) in a partnership with Tesco but other supermarkets such as Waitrose have now joined in. The other system of redistributing surplus food is called Neighbourly (, originally started by Mark and Spencer. The result of these initiatives is that food banks can usually offer at least some fresh food like fruit and vegetables on a ‘help yourself’ basis, although this tends to be rather hit and miss, and most managers complain that they get more bread than anything else.

Trussell and Fareshare have recently received a large grant from Asda (owned by Walmart) and plan to expand considerably their ability to ensure that a reliable supply of fresh food is available in many more food banks ( This move has been welcomed by some but heavily criticised by others, including IFAN, on the grounds that, as has already happened in the USA, the links between the food aid movement and the food industry are becoming ever closer, while the reasons for food poverty are still not being addressed (

Indeed, at the beginning of this month, it was revealed that the Westminster government has drawn up plans to carry out its own research on the reasons why people need to go to food banks (, even though there is already a plethora of data by both academics and organisations involved in this field, much of which has been dismissed by government ministers.

Sadly, the excellent Transition Bro Gwaun cafe, which used locally-sourced surplus food to serve meals at very reasonable prices, closed down; this was not because it lacked customers but because the building was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme. TBG is currently putting some energy into a Community Fridge project, and fridges have now appeared in both Fishguard and Narberth ( and early reports suggest that they are being heavily used.

At the beginning of the summer I was invited by the Manager of an independent food bank to share ideas on good practice in food banks. As a result of our discussions, she consulted her own volunteers and they came up with some ideas of their own, including having a simple feed-back form to give to clients. Another idea was to have someone who had either been a client or a volunteer – or both – to attend trustee meetings as a representative of both categories. Both of these moves give greater voice to clients and contribute to the push for greater ‘dignity’ in the food aid arena, a notion which has been led by organisations in Scotland such as Menu for Change. A third suggestion was to have photos and names of all volunteers up on the wall, thereby giving greater equivalence to helpers and clients, whose names and details are always demanded.

In another set of food banks, I learned that a new service is being offered, that of Community Connectors, who visit regularly and offer clients help in connecting with other organisations which
may give practical advice or reduce loneliness by putting them in touch with groups and activities ( This is an important move not only towards helping with the complex problems from which many food bank clients suffer, but also seeing food poverty in a wider social context.

In the autumn there are several important food poverty conferences coming up and also the reading of a Bill in Parliament to oblige the government to measure food poverty on the grounds that ‘if we can measure it, we can fix it’ (

Blog 8: Some bigger questions about food banks and food poverty

In my last post, I posed a series of practical questions for those involved in food banking, ending with a set of more fundamental questions. This post begins with some common criticisms of food banking, many of which are found in the publications mentioned in section 2. Section 3 draws attention to new models of food aid which maintain dignity and regard those experiencing food poverty as the real experts.

  1. Common criticisms of food banks
  • They are stigmatising – while some give (food and money) others take food (for nothing)
  • They are a form of sticking plaster (like BandAid) since they address symptoms, not causes
  • They let the government off the hook by seeking to take responsibility for ensuring people get enough food
  • They allow the food industries to get rid of the food they don’t need by giving surplus to charities, and thereby gain much-needed PR
  • They think in terms of charity, not solidarity, much less the human right to food
  • They do not take sufficient account of the fact that food poverty is only the tip of a large ice-berg: low pay, unemployment, disability, illness, mental health problems, housing problems
  • They do not challenge the changing public perception of citizens’ entitlements in a supposedly welfare state: from a ‘cradle to grave’ safety net paid for by national insurance, to ‘scroungers’ battening on the tax-payer.
  1. Some recent work on food poverty:

 Andrew Fisher’s book ‘Big Hunger’ (MIT Press 2017)

  • Food banks have become an intrinsic part of north American society
  • They are inextricably tied up with the food industry and the waste it produces
  • They are also tied to ‘looking good’ and requirement for all companies to be seen to fulfill their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy
  • They let government and the public off the hook, comfortable in the knowledge that people are getting fed by charities

Graham Riches’ book ‘Food Bank Nation: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food’. (Routledge 2018)

  • The right to food is a human right in international law ratified by most nations
  • In other words, everyone is entitled to sufficient food of good quality
  • This right is not being observed in many rich nations in the West, where food banks or similar schemes have been set up to deal with food poverty
  • This is caused by growing inequality and growing poverty which governments are unwilling to tackle

3. Some moves towards new kinds of organisations addressing food poverty

While both Fisher and Riches make mention of some organisations in north America which are rather different from the standard food banking model, I found particularly inspiring the report below from two Scottish organisations which work (with the support of their governmen) to make good food available to all. It contains a set of important principles and practical advice for food banks which want to transition to something different.

  1. Nourish Scotland and the Poverty Truth Commission: ‘Dignity in Practice: Learning, tools and guidance for community food providers.’ (2018)

Scotland has a devolved government which pursues progressive policies in relation to healthy food for all. However, it does not have the powers to operate a different benefit system or set a higher minimum wage than elsewhere in the UK and there are many in Scotland who live in poverty and suffer from food insecurity. Unsurprisingly, systems of alleviating food poverty similar to those elsewhere in the UK have developed, including food banks, but some community initiatives have tried to move beyond a standard food bank model.

  • Nourish argues that ‘Dignity should be placed at the heart of all community action around food poverty’ and
  • ‘Involving people experiencing food insecurity is where we will find the solution’
  • The four dignity principles are:
    • Involvement in decision-making of people with direct experience
    • Recognise the social value of food
    • Provide opportunities to contribute
    • Leave people with the power to choose
  • This means asking staff, volunteers and others taking part how the project supports people to feel
    • A sense of control
    • Able to take part
    • Nourished and supported
    • Involved in decision-making
    • Valued and able to contribute
  • In this report, Nourish adduces examples of community actions which already go beyond the standard FB model, and include maintaining gardens for growing vegetables, providing community meals which are open to all, increasing the choice of affordable fruit and vegetables, provision of fresh food vouchers, operating in places where people go regularly
  • In the second part of the report, Nourish suggests ways in which food banks may transition to different kinds of organisations which respect the principles above


Blog 7: ‘best practice’ in food banks?

A food bank manager contacted me recently: ‘I’m beginning to realise we have to change a couple of things. I know we could also learn from other food banks too. So any good practice you’ve seen that you can share would be appreciated. I’m going to organise a volunteer meeting to share ideas for improvement.’

I thanked her for her request, noting that during the three years of my research there has not only been a depressing increase in the number of people in food poverty in the UK and in the number of FBs. At the same time there has also been an increase in the links between FBs and the food industry, which contributes to a widespread public perception that this ‘fixes’ the problem of food poverty, which clearly it does not.

Many food bank workers recognise that the very existence of the food banks should not be necessary, but argue that in the absence of any alternative at present, this is the best that can be done and it is better than doing nothing.
Nonetheless, I would argue that those involved in food banks need to ask themselves regularly a number of questions, which appear below.

1. Facilities:
Having a dedicated space (including storage) is a huge plus, but most FBs do not have that, so ‘warehousing’ (collection of food, dating and storing) is a big and very labour-intensive issue. Only a small minority of the FBs I know have their own space, but most use church halls and do not have access to fridges and freezers which limits the kind of food they can hold and distribute. Those which have their own space have actively sought it.
How do you make the most of the space you have available to ensure that it is as welcoming and affords as much privacy as possible? Most FBs offer clients tea or coffee, but some have a full cafeteria or serve a simple lunch weekly or more often, thereby contributing to social solidarity and breaking down barriers between volunteers and clients

2. Governance: trustees and managers
FBs are usually charities, with Board of Trustees, a manager (who may be paid or unpaid), and volunteers
• What constitutes good governance for a FB? Is there a clear structure and accountability (who does what, who reports to whom)?
• How do you recruit your trustees? Do you advertise? Interview? Are they ‘hands-on’ and participatory?
• What constitutes a good manager? Can you have good leadership while encouraging all to give their views? Is there a difference between paid and volunteer mangers?
• What kind of record keeping do you do?
• Is there a tension between the formal structure and the need for informality in interaction?
• What difference does size make – number of branches, number of staff, volunteers, clients?

3. Volunteers
• How do you set about finding, coordinating, training, and managing volunteers?
• Is it better to have a larger or a smaller number and why?
• Do you try and ensure that the background of volunteers also reflects the community they serve?
• How do you recruit young people to volunteer for your FB?
• How do you ensure that volunteers are knowledgeable about the topics that concern clients such as low income, precarious work/unemployment, benefit system, health and mental health, housing)? What training do you offer them?
• How do you ensure that they feel able to give their opinions even if critical? Do you provide any opportunity for them to reflect on their practice?
• How is appreciation for their efforts shown? What do volunteers get out of volunteering?

4. Clients
• People come to FBs for food, but for what else? How do you know what clients want? Are they ever asked?
• Some FBs talk about ‘More than food’ – what else is needed? E.g. company, listening ear, sign-posting, budgeting, assistance with forms and benefits, community connections? How helpful are these?
• Going to a FB is seen as stigmatising – taking something for nothing. How can this be overcome? Also stigmatising is being unable to choose one’s food – are there any ways to get around this?
• How may clients be involved in the organisation? How do you find out what they think of your services?
• Should FBs be membership organisations in which clients, as well as trustees, staff and volunteers, participate?

5. Vouchers
Many FBs operate with a voucher system, which entitles clients to food parcels. It also shifts the burden of deciding who gets parcels away from the FB to the agencies. Vouchers also enable good record-keeping. However, some FBs operate without a voucher system on the grounds that it increases the difficulties for clients.
• To what extent are vouchers necessary? Could you manage without them?

6. Communication and publicity
FBs need to communicate with their trustees, staff, volunteers, clients, donors and sponsors as well as the general public. They may do this both formally (regular newsletter, Facebook pages, web pages, posters, meetings, workshops, seminars) and informally through conversations, emails. Making maximum use of media and social media to engage and inform can be very helpful to a FB – do you need to up your game with regard to your media presence?

7. Links with other FBS: sharing resources and knowledge
Some food banks get more donations than others, some occasionally find stocks low.
• Do you have arrangements whereby you send any surplus stocks to other FBs or to other helping agencies?
• Do you feel able to call on other FBs in your area if stocks run low?
• Do you ever get together with them and compare experience and practice?

8. Links with other organisations, formal and informal:
• What kind of organisations do you need to link with?
• How do you develop these to your mutual advantage?
• Are you proactive in this regard?

9. Links with sponsors and donors including food industry
• What do individuals get out of donating? Is this ever discussed?

10. Key questions to ask regularly:

  • Why are we doing this? For whom are we doing it? Is this the best way of achieving our aims?
  • If we say that we would like FBs to be unnecessary, then what are we doing about ending food poverty? Do we challenge public stereotypes about the undeserving poor and if so how? Do we seek to change the systems (e.g. low wages, benefit problems) which lead to food poverty?
  • How can we get beyond charity and think instead about solidarity? Does charitable status constrain what we do?
  • Should food bank volunteers become activists?

Blog 6: Help a hungry child

Christmas fund-raiser ‘Help a Hungry Child’ in the Evening Standard and the Independent

Note: apologies for lack of entries in my blog for a couple of months. This was due to family health problems, happily resolved now.

Over Christmas the Independent and the Evening Standard ran a joint fund-raising campaign called ‘Help a Hungry Child’ to raise money primarily for the Felix Project, a charity set up in 2016 in London to collect surplus food from the food industry and redistribute it to other food charities ( Readers of the two newspapers were urged to donate cash so that new forms of reaching the food poor could be set up via ‘market-stalls’ in primary schools in disadvantaged areas of London.

This blog looks not only at the ‘messages’ given in the articles written by journalist, but also considers some of the comments by readers.

The campaign’s articles published from late November up to Christmas made some useful and important points about food poverty, particularly among children:

  • The numbers of people living with food poverty is staggering – according to the Independent on 28th November it is said to be in the region of 8m nationally.
  • Many children in London live in poverty and the figure is rising. As a result of this, many go to school without breakfast and find it hard to concentrate in lessons so the Independent also raised funds for the Magic Breakfast charity (
  • A survey conducted by Yougov and organised by Kelloggs in November2017 found that a large number of parents wished they could give their children more food or food which was more nutritious but for them good quality food is often unaffordable. They are often forced to provide the cheapest food, as a result of which all household members suffer and some become obese, leading to heart disease, diabetes and poor mental health
  • In recent years, some people have been admitted to hospital with clinical states of malnutrition, and there are also signs of stunted growth in children, as well as general ill-health. Rickets has again become visible in the way it was in Victorian times, while some GPs are planning to prescribe not medicine but food to their patients

All in all, then, a dismal picture of poverty and especially food poverty in 21st century UK.

The other set of arguments laid out was that there is a huge amount of food which is being wasted by food retailers (including wholesalers and supermarkets) and by consumers.  This could be used by the food poor rather than being put into landfill, which is bad for the environment.  As the CEO of the Felix Project stated: ‘We are scarcely making a dent in the food surplus mountain in Britain. It is this crazy mismatch with 223,000 tonnes of edible food going to landfill or anaerobic digestion plants and demand (70,000 London children going to school hungry and 500,000 Londoners living in real poverty) that caused us to start the Felix Project in the first place’ (Evening Standard, 12.01/18).

So how successful was it?

In its own terms, it was very successful. It was announced on Jan 12th 2018 that the campaign had raised over £1m with contributions coming not only from readers but also from corporations, food retailers (in cash and kind) and ‘famous names’ (actors, models, performers). It received a lot of publicity and was widely endorsed, including by politicians of all of the three main political parties (Justine Greening, Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable).

Did this campaign also enlighten people about food poverty? A reading of the articles published reveals a clear underlying message that if food surplus and food poverty can be brought together, there is a ‘win-win’ situation with a solution to both problems. Such an argument tends to ignore the reasons why people are in food poverty in the first place, and why, as much research has shown, such forms of food aid are less desirable than people being able to afford to buy and choose their food like anyone else.

What about the views of readers of these two newspapers? The articles in the Independent and the Evening Standard between 28th November and the 25th December attracted very large numbers of comments which tended to fall into several categories:

  1. Blaming victims and others
  • ‘Blame the victim’: those suffering from food poverty did not know how to budget wisely, spending their money on alcohol and cigarettes, drugs and tattoos, nor did they know what to do with fresh food such as vegetables. Many food bank clients had cars and iphones, the implication being that they were not really poor
  • Blame the immigrants, refugees and those from ethnic minorities: some of the discussions rapidly degenerated into racist and Islamophobic abuse (see Independent 28/11/17)

2.  But others made points about the underlying causes of food poverty and criticised the government and its policies, especially around benefits (with particular mention of sanctions and the introduction of the deeply unpopular Universal Credit):

  • ‘You know that people are waiting for at least 6 weeks with no money coming in while they wait for Universal Credit to start. Of whom more than half are in work’ (Wings, Independent, 29/11/17)
  • ‘It really says a lot about our society that the government seems to have decided long ago that people at the bottom are expendable.’ (khitb77, Independent 18/12/17)

Others mentioned low wages:

  • In my work I’ve met loads of people struggling on low wages and none of them acts as you [another commentator] suggest they do. It’s much easier to blame the fecklessness of parents as then we don’t have to tackle the true causes of poverty – the simple fact that we don’t pay people enough to live on’ (Jump, Independent 18/12/17)
  • ‘I am slightly stunned that people on these threads don’t understand the genuine issues that people face. Many of these parents are on zero hours contracts…no guarantee of work.’ (Patti P, Independent 18/12/17)

And the cost of living in relation to low wages:

  • ‘Housing costs around £40 after (with) housing benefit, taxes (tax credits) are more than cancelled out by benefits, bus fares if you need a bus £20 per week, heating and fuel £30, food £50, total £170. Leaves a bunch of money after minimum wage of £300 per week’ (hodgey, Independent 18/12/17).

3.  Only a very few commentators questioned the very ethos of a fund-raising campaign such as this, with a swipe at the idea that charity can absolve both government and the wealthy of further responsibility toward the poor:

‘Jacob-Rees-Mogg will be so pleased. He can now insist that charities can afford to support ALL poor people, so the government need not, as he insisted they shouldn’t, give the poor anything.’ (Rosal, Independent, 22/12/17).

‘Of course the rich can now absolve themselves of any responsibility by the very existence of this project. The pitchforks are coming.’ (Slavery by consent, Independent 18/12/17).






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.

[i] (e.g.

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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.



Blog 3. Summer time and the living ain’t easy: some food banks run out of food


When the Bank of England’s Chief Economist  wanted to find out about hardship in the UK at first hand, his first tour was to Wales (see Wales has some of the poorest areas of the UK and this includes west Wales, one of the sites for my research on food poverty in the UK.

We’re almost at the end of the school holidays and there have been reports in the national media that many food banks have run out of food. One reason for this is that children who get free school meals in term time are not getting them now which increases demand on food banks (see

Here in west Wales, where I’ve been researching food poverty for three years now, the story is no different. One food bank manager told me that there had definitely been a rise in demand over the school holidays. I have noticed that unlike the situation in some other parts of the UK, where there are volunteer-run (usually church-led) lunch clubs for the school holidays (see for example – see photo) , these seem to be lacking here. A report in a national paper today suggests that a child not getting his or her school meals costs the parents £30-40 per week per child and that there is a proposal for a bill in the next Parliament for schools to continue providing free lunches even in the holidays (

But there are other reasons why food banks are running out and one is the continued impact of austerity policies, including benefit sanctions and the roll-out of Universal Credit ( The Pembrokeshire Herald newspaper for July 21st reported that a PATCH (Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Poverty) food bank had run out of stock. The PATCH manager did not mince her words: ‘There are people here in Pembrokeshire who haven’t eaten for days (yes days) as they wait for their benefits to arrive. One client lost their job and went straight on to Universal Credit, with a six to eight-week wait for any money.’

At another food bank, the manager tells a similar story: ‘There has definitely been a rise in demand because of the caps on benefits’ and goes on to remark ‘I notice they are trying to put more people onto PIP (Personal Independence Allowance)  as it will decrease costs and also make it appear that unemployment has fallen but it’s just massaging the figures’.

During a visit to a Pembrokeshire food bank last April, I bumped into a worker from another agency who was collecting some food for her own clients. She looked exhausted and despairing: ’I’m fire-fighting, yet if I can’t write up reports on my increasing number of cases, they will cut the funding further’.  She goes on to explain that many people have turned to her agency because they have had their disability allowances stopped while their entitlement is assessed:  ‘They should employ proper doctors for the ESA (assessment for disability) not people who just tick boxes. So clients end up having to go for mandatory reconsideration.’ The result of this situation is that for frontline agencies like hers ‘There is absolutely no wriggle room’.

Four months later, the situation had become so bad that Citizens Advice Bureau Pembrokeshire called publicly upon the (Westminster) government to fix the many problems already evident with its new Universal Credit scheme before rolling it out to all claimants from 2018. Pembrokeshire’s chief executive of CAB warned: ‘Many families across Pembrokeshire may be put at financial risk, which in turn can put huge pressure on other local services such as food banks, health, housing and social care’ (County Echo 18/8/17 p. 7). Such concerns were shared by every food bank manager to whom I have talked over the last few months.





Blog 2. The angry farmer and the food bank manager. 280817

This is my third summer researching food poverty in West Wales, and last week I re-visited four of the food banks where I’ve been observing. In an interview with a food bank manager, she told me the following anecdote.

Like many charities, her food bank had set up a stall at one of the large agricultural shows held over the summer and there she was verbally assailed by an angry farmer who made the following points:

  • Food has never been cheaper since the supermarkets treat the farmers badly. It’s a low proportion of family budgets, lower than it ever used to be, so people shouldn’t be in food poverty.
  • Food banks give out the wrong kinds of food: vegetables are cheap and they could give out more of them.
  • One reason why people are in food poverty is because they often don’t know how to cook and the food banks should be doing something about this

These are common arguments used to criticise food banks and their users, so I offer the following suggestions as responses.

  • Food has never been cheaper and it’s a low proportion of family budgets, lower than it used to be. This is because today the supermarkets treat the farmers badly

It’s true that food is often a smaller part of the household budget than it was some decades ago, and a general expectation has grown up that this is appropriate. The supermarkets, with their special offers, ‘value’ products and heavy advertising, foster this view and compete with each other to maintain low prices, a policy only made possible by their high volume sales.

But the actual proportion of the household budget spent on food is heavily class-dependent. Those with higher incomes may spend more money, but they spend a lower proportion than do the poor (this is known as ‘Engels’ law’). Most importantly, food prices have to be viewed alongside wages. In the UK in the last few years, wages have stagnated or even dropped in value while many people are employed part-time, on zero-hours contracts, and for minimum wages.

Furthermore, food is the most elastic part of the budget and most people choose to pay rent, council tax and energy bills first and foremost, since the sanctions for falling into arrears can be severe. Indeed, lack of money to buy food after a meagre income has been spent on such items is a common reason for coming to a food bank.

In any case, food prices have actually been rising recently (see, a factor which was mentioned by many food bank users to whom I talked. Furthermore, while it’s a common idea that cooking from scratch is cheaper than eating processed food, that’s not always the case ( , a fact confirmed by food bank users like the woman who told me: ‘Some dishes it’s cheaper to get a ready-made. For example it’s only £2.00 in Sainsburys for a family-sized shepherd’s pie, you couldn’t make it yourself for that. The meat alone would cost you £4.00.‘

It’s true that many farmers are highly dependent upon supermarkets to sell their products. In my research in Wales over several years, I have often heard farmers complain about their relations with supermarkets: they often have short-term contracts, their products can be rejected on apparently arbitrary grounds of ‘quality’, and in the past, they could even be required to provide ‘two for the price of one’ (for so-called ‘bogof’ offers). Supermarkets negotiate tough price agreements, with the price for some products actually being below that of production.  In recent years, milk has been the most notorious case and the low price offered to farmers has been a major factor in forcing many dairy farmers out of business.

  • Food banks give out the wrong kinds of food: vegetables are cheap and they could buy more of them.

Most food banks give out mainly long-life food such as tins, bottles and packets. The reasons are simple – they do not have facilities for storing perishable food and most of them operate for only a few hours a week in borrowed premises. Over the past couple of years there has been a growth in supermarkets passing on their ‘surplus’ food (i.e. food which is still edible but past its ‘best before’ or ‘sell by’ dates) to charities such as food banks. Particularly successful has been the use of the Food Cloud app, which has been utilised by Tesco in its partnership with Fareshare, but also now taken up by other supermarkets (see Caplan 2017 However, the surplus food given by supermarkets to charity varies considerably in amount, quality and quantity, for example many food banks find that they get more bread than they can use, but not always enough fresh produce.

  • People often don’t know how to cook and the food banks should be looking into this

In 2015, there was something of a furore in the media when Baroness Jenner, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry on Food Poverty, argued that lack of cooking skills is a major factor in food poverty (see It is true that for a long period of time, cooking skills were dropped from the school  curriculum to be replaced by ‘food technology’, but many of the food bank users I interviewed maintained that they did know how to cook – they just could not afford the necessary ingredients.

Contrary to popular perception, the buying and cooking of healthy food is not always a simple matter:

  • There are ‘food deserts’ in some areas where the only shops are small and expensive; this includes both rural areas and some urban estates
  • People may lack facilities or equipment for cooking or money for the energy meter
  • People are subjected to heavy advertising and supermarket promotions for processed food, particularly children
  • The government is unwilling to have any but voluntary codes for food standard quality since it views people as responsible for their own health

However, I found that many users were also often well aware of healthy eating messages, some saying that they tried to ‘balance’ buying cheap processed food by also purchasing better quality fresh food for their children, if they could.

Some food banks are indeed tackling issues of how to manage to produce good healthy food on a small budget, such as the initiatives offered by the Trussell Trust’s ‘More than Food’ (, which includes classes in how to cook economically.

In short, criticisms of users of food banks is very often a case of victim-blaming. While there’s no lack of volunteers willing to help those suffering from food poverty, often through no fault of their own, what is lacking is an awareness of the citizen’s right to food and the means to secure this. Food poverty is above all a matter for the state.