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LSE British Politics and Policy

November 28th, 2022

Exploring the ethical complexity of food charity

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

LSE British Politics and Policy

November 28th, 2022

Exploring the ethical complexity of food charity

0 comments | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Hundreds of thousands use food banks on a monthly basis. Maddy Power writes that food charity facilitates public spending cuts and employs elaborate strategies to monitor fraud, legitimating the classic deserving/undeserving divide. This way, food insecurity is individualised, obscuring the systemic issues that give rise to the need of charity.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt did his very best to paint his Autumn Statement as progressive. Uprating benefits and the state pension in line with inflation, the handful of extra funding for the NHS and schools, and the increase in the “national living wage” concealed the measures which would make us poorer. It also drew attention away from the stark reality that families face a winter of hardship before benefits increase – and even then, support levels are too low to prevent millions from going hungry.

The number of people using a food bank continues to increase, from already shockingly high levels, as the ‘cost of living crisis’ takes hold. The large food bank networks, the Trussell Trust and IFAN, along with many other anti-poverty campaigners, call attention to continued government cruelty and incompetence that drives poverty and food bank use. And rightly so, we are in desperate need of major policy change to stem growing hardship.

But the consequence of congregating around these narratives is that we ignore how food charity may in fact maintain the neoliberal policies and ideologies – individualism and surveillance, for instance – that it claims to counter. This is important. Hundreds of thousands use food banks on a monthly basis and many thousands more will do so during the coming inhospitable winter. Understanding the experiences of people inside the food bank, as well as the role that food charity may play in maintaining our current systems of oppression, is essential to both acknowledging the contemporary lived experience of poverty and to working towards a more progressive future.

The predominant voluntary sector response to hunger and destitution – food parcels or meals distributed in person to those in need – has failed to address the root causes of food insecurity (inadequate and insecure income, whether from employment and/or social security). The sector has, hence, perpetuated its own continuation and growth. Historical, albeit partial, resistance to the institutionalisation of food charity at both the local and national level was fatally undermined by the Coronavirus pandemic, as local and national government collaborated with food charity to manage growing need. As a consequence, food charity has and continues to facilitate public spending cuts within a wider context of neoliberalism. But the culpability of food charity for sustaining neoliberalism and the inequalities it creates goes beyond this.

Between 2014 and 2019, I spoke with representatives from many different types of food charity. Despite considerable diversity in operations, what was notable among some of these conversations was the stigma and condescension that service providers could express towards those using their services. Some providers framed the use of food charity as a ‘choice’ borne of poor life decisions or inadequate cooking abilities; I was told of the elaborate strategies employed by food charities, particularly food banks, to monitor fraud. These narratives drew legitimacy from and further legitimated the classic deserving/undeserving divide while individualising food insecurity and obscuring the systemic issues which give rise to the use of food charity.

In food banks, especially Trussell Trust food banks, these stigmatising narratives were made real – they were tangible and visible – via a particular system of food access and distribution. The referral system, in which someone seeking food was required to first secure a referral to the food bank by a third party and provided with a paper voucher as proof, gave physical form to this undeserving/deserving divide. Within food banks, bureaucratised processes of food distribution disconnected the stigmatised and highly controlled act of collecting food (receipt of food was limited to three parcels in six months and the food provided consisted of a predefined parcel of ambient food) from care and advice provided by food bank volunteers. The operationalisation of the deserving/undeserving binary and ascription to stigmatising behavioural narratives of ‘choice’ undermined solidarity among people seeking food, and between those providing and using the services. How could there be fellowship when people were divided, not only by bureaucratic processes, but also by the idea that some people were undeserving of food – they were not allowed to eat – because of their own character and behaviour?

Yet what was also noticeable from my fieldwork and is even more apparent as I write today, is the immense diversity that characterises food charity in the UK. Food charity is dominated by large, wealthy, corporatised hierarchical charities, most notably FareShare and the Trussell Trust (in 2020/21 the Trussell Trust had a total income of £57,782,000 and FareShare had an income of £72,068,000). However, it is increasingly composed of a ragtag bunch of small-scale groups and community organisations. For instance, a local councillor running a cheap café, a community centre holding a meal for residents twice weekly, and a lone parent selling fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices. These grassroots initiatives are largely open access, they tend to resist (sometimes assertively) collecting data on who visits for food, and they are often established by people with direct experience of poverty. These organisations and groups can be political spaces in which people come together as equals over a cooked meal, a piece of cake, a cup of tea to share their experiences and ideas for change. Like all forms of food charity these spaces will not solve food insecurity and poverty, but they may undermine the stigma associated with it and be a site where ideas, activism, and protest may develop.

I have written before, with Ruth Patrick, about the possibilities for hope that can come in contexts of despair. In the solidarity and activism that occurs in some small-scale food charities there are reasons to be hopeful. Hopeful that, despite a policy context that routinely fails to properly address the needs of low-income households, food charities, now so common place, can cultivate the resistance that is needed if we are to eventually see policy and political change. When you are next in a supermarket and think of dropping a tin of beans into the Trussell Trust food bank collection point with hope of helping those in need, consider for a moment how the food bank may be doing the opposite and look to local activism around food justice as a foundation for wider change.

This ideas in this post come from the book, Hunger, Whiteness and Religion in Neoliberal Britain: An Inequality of Power, recently published by Policy Press.

Maddy Power is a Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences, University of York. Her research focuses on inequalities in access to food, the lived experience of poverty and food insecurity, and emergency food systems.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

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LSE British Politics and Policy

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