Exploring why food aid exists and the deeper causes of food poverty, this book addresses neglected dimensions of traditional food aid and food poverty debates.
It argues that the food aid industry is infused with neoliberal governmentality and shows how food charity upholds Christian ideals and white privilege, maintaining inequalities of class, race, religion and gender. However, it also reveals a sector that is immensely varied, embodying both individualism and mutual aid.
Drawing upon lived experiences, it documents how food sharing amid poverty fosters solidarity and gives rise to alternative modes of food redistribution among communities. By harnessing these alternative ways of being, food aid and communities can be part of movements for economic and racial justice.
In 2010, George Osborne, the privately educated, fresh-faced Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave his first speech to the Conservative party conference, promising a radical overhaul of the benefits system. He proclaimed to Conservative party politicians and members, affiliate groups and donors: ‘If someone believes that living on benefits is a lifestyle choice, then we need to make them think again. And we need to change completely the system that has allowed and encouraged them to make such a mistaken choice’ (Osborne, 2010). True to his word, the following decade encompassed eye-watering cuts, freezes to benefit levels, and wave after wave of welfare reform. In parallel with this punitive,1 albeit populist, programme, food banks expanded from an unknown form of charity, started by Paddy and Carol Henderson in their garden shed in Salisbury, to a major voluntary sector service provider.2 Today, thousands of food banks as well as thousands of other food aid providers – soup kitchens, pay-as-you-feel cafes, community kitchens, community supermarkets, community gardens, and many more – distribute food on a daily and weekly basis to desperate and hungry people.
This ‘contemporary’ phenomena is, however, perhaps more complex than it first appears. Community-based responses to poverty and hunger have long-existed in the UK, including the distribution of poor relief from monasteries prior to the Reformation; relief for those too ill or old to work in the form of the ‘parish loaf’ in the 15th century; basic provision of food in the workhouses of the 19th century; and the vastly more progressive British Restaurants, or communal kitchens, established in 1940 to help people who had been bombed out of their homes or had run out of ration coupons, and to equalise consumption across class lines (Vernon, 2007).
I met Sabira in 2017. She was separated from her husband and had three young children. She was in her late twenties and had lived in the same area of Bradford all her life. Her parents, to whom she was close, lived nearby. She described her ethnicity as Pakistani and her religion as Islam but, when asked about the influence of her faith on her experience of poverty, she stressed that was, “not to do with Islam. I’m just a bubbly person; I’m optimistic and I know I’ll get through hard times”.
Sabira described several episodes of what may be classed as food insecurity. Her ex-husband controlled their household income and would spend the vast majority it – “I don’t know where the money went” – leaving very little for food and other household bills. When there was no money for food, Sabira would make a meal from whatever there was in the cupboards – fairy cakes using margarine, eggs and flour, or scrambled eggs – or she would seek support from her parents, whose assistance was given willingly – “I would always be able to go to my mum’s”. Her mother would provide food and emotional support – although never money – and, occasionally, Sabira would ask her father for financial assistance. While parental support was given freely, Sabira stressed that she would endeavour to “repay the debt”: “I would work really hard; I would clean and cook, it would be nothing to make an extra chapatti – four rather than three. They really appreciated it, they all said afterwards how helpful I was.”
Gemma lived in Bradford with her partner and two young children. Her partner worked long days in a local restaurant while she looked after their children. They had struggled for money since the children were small, when she stopped work to care for them, and now they lived payday to payday, eking out their last few pounds until another pay cheque arrived and they could relax, just for a while. She avoided food banks and instead sought support from her husband’s mother, who lived close by. Gemma was highly critical of others who received benefits and used food banks. She considered them to be greedy and selfish – they bought clothes, beer and flatscreen televisions, which left them with little money for food. Gemma distanced herself from these people; she was poor, but she saw herself as making good, respectable choices. She wanted a better life for herself and her family but the only route she could see to achieving this was by criticising other people and thereby attaining a form of social status that her poverty prohibited. But Gemma’s criticism of other people, in fairly similar situations to herself, could be seen as in fact compounding her own struggles; her criticism individualised the poverty which she and her peers experienced and negated the government’s role in ensuring a decent standard of living for its citizens. She strove to be the ideal neoliberal citizen – independent of government support, hardworking and successful – but her own circumstances made this impossible, so instead she denigrated other people.
When I first started the research for this book in 2014, we were in the bitter – and it turned out to be prolonged – winter of austerity. Instead of blaming reckless financial entities for the runaway speculation and short-term selling that had triggered the 2007–08 financial crisis, the Conservative-led government penalised disabled people, lone parents, public sector workers and the low paid through drastic cuts to the welfare state. These people, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the crash, would be compelled to pay for it (Jones, 2020).
The government’s ‘Hostile Environment’, introduced in 2012, was already taking hold. This highly racist policy, an unashamed attempt to reduce immigration, tasked the NHS, landlords, banks, employers and many others with enforcing immigration controls. It aimed to make the UK unliveable for undocumented migrants, withdrawing any access to the safety net, and ultimately to push them to leave. The Windrush Scandal, revealed by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman in 2017, illustrated the true horror of this stigmatising policy (Gentleman, 2019). British citizens, the children of Commonwealth citizens who migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1971, people who had lived, parented and paid tax in the UK for decades, began to receive menacing text messages and threatening letters from the government. The communications told them, contrary to their own understanding, that they were illegal immigrants:
They went into work one day to be told that their new illegal status meant they no longer had a job. People with ongoing health troubles turned up to scheduled treatments to be presented with a bill of tens of thousands of pounds before they could be seen.
On a cold afternoon in November 2015, I sat with David in a small office adjacent to the church hall from which food parcels were distributed and asked him why he chose to set up a food bank. David said that his reason for doing so was religious; charity work through food was integral to his life as a Christian, to serving the poor and God. Thus, his work in the food bank today continued a long tradition of Christian charitable works for the hungry and destitute. He recognised that rapid increases in need in the local area were partly related to harsh austerity and, in this way, the hunger of the people who visited the food bank was the responsibility of government, not the Church, but his faith told him to help people in need, regardless of the cause. The result was a busy and regular food bank, overseen by David and supported by equally committed Christian volunteers.
While David’s reasons for giving food were acknowledged to be part of a religious framework, he did not necessarily consider his food bank to be part of a broader movement of food banks run by Christian groups across the UK. His food bank was perceived by him as merely the formalisation of a historic distribution of food from the Church, which became necessary as demand increased. But David’s food bank is part of a wider movement; of the thousands of food banks that have opened in the past decade, the majority of them are run by or affiliated to Christian groups.
Emily, a White British woman, volunteered in a large Trussell Trust food bank in Bradford. With support from her own church and those in surrounding parishes,1 she and others started the food bank when another food bank in Bradford restricted its catchment area, excluding many people in a “very deprived” part of her parish. The people who accessed the food bank, in which she volunteered, were almost entirely White. Emily ascribed this to the purported demography of the local area, which she described as “very White”. The implication was that food banks located in ethnically diverse areas would have a multi-ethnic population of service users. But this was in fact not the case. The vast majority of food banks in Bradford catered to predominantly White service users.
Emily seemed surprised when I asked her why those using the food bank were almost entirely White; she could see no barrier to anyone accessing the service so their absence must reflect the absence of ‘non-White’ people in the local area more broadly. There was no reflection on how the food bank could be exclusionary, including via her own role in maintaining its Christian identity. Emily may not have been racist, but she was colourblind: race was immaterial in her consideration of food charity; she met the need that was set before her and that was deemed sufficient to her volunteer role. And yet the food bank itself, shaped by Christianity and by paradigms of Whiteness, was arguably institutionally racist. Emily, steeped in unchallenged ideas of Whiteness, failed to recognise this.
In a study of a topic such as food insecurity – or hunger – it is justifiable to ask why a theoretical framework is needed at all. What difference can theory make to those reluctantly visiting food banks or parents skipping meals to ensure enough food for their children? This is an important and worthwhile question which should be asked of all research – theoretical and empirical. But, however abstract, theory has a purpose: while we may be unaware of it, theoretical frameworks shape how we think, how we act, and what questions we ask. Interrogating existing theoretical paradigms – such as neoliberalism – shines a light on why the status quo is as it is, and how behaviours and systems that seem normal and taken for granted are in fact creations, first of individuals and ultimately of society collectively. Scrutinising the theoretical frameworks that underpin and are used to explain food insecurity and food aid illuminates not only the nature of these phenomena but why they exist at all, and why they are increasingly accepted as everyday parts of society. Constructing a new theoretical framework for analyses of food insecurity and food aid may, therefore, enable fresh understanding, elicit different questions and inspire new challenges to the status quo. This chapter sets out to do just that. It critiques key conceptual frameworks surrounding food insecurity and food aid – neoliberal political economy, rights-based frameworks, and mutual aid – and explicates concepts that inform the empirical analysis in subsequent chapters: religious neoliberalism, racial neoliberalism and the post-racial, and Whiteness. In so doing, the chapter attempts to construct a ‘new’ theoretical framework, one which is reflective of multi-ethnic, multi-faith Britain.
Tina, a disabled lone parent, laughs in despair as she describes to me the tinned, dried and unappetising rations she was given by the local food bank. Like many of those living in poverty, Tina had been reluctant to use the local food bank, in this case run by the Trussell Trust.1 The additional costs of fuel, food and clothes in the winter months had battered the carefully managed small household budget and, faced with hungry children, she had capitulated and sought out referral to the food bank.
The food she received was inadequate, based on ‘ludicrous’ assumptions that people would be content with meals consisting of dried pasta, jarred sauce and tinned beans. Tina was poor but she was, after all, not living in a war zone or in the midst of a climate disaster. The experience of seeking help from the food bank was demoralising, if not insulting, and Tina was adamant that whatever the food shortages in their household she would not return.
Tina’s experience is, nevertheless, not one of those heard in the vignettes of food bank users carefully curated by powerful organisations like the Trussell Trust and FareShare,2 vignettes which present a grateful food aid ‘client’,3 failed by the social security system but saved from hunger by food charity. These accounts may acknowledge the shame and stigma associated with food charity, but they do not admit the role which food aid may play in creating stigma, upholding inequalities, and maintaining the very status quo which food charities claim, in public statements and campaigns, to reject.
Scratch beneath the surface of these good Samaritan narratives of food aid and food insecurity and there is a complex and murky scene.
In this concluding chapter, we set out an agenda for change. This is focused around exploring how a post-pandemic future might be better than what came before. There is a focus on the changes that are needed, and the need to foreground care, and to shift towards more universalist provision. The book shares some practical things those who have read it can do to help make change, change that is needed for all of our sakes.