Food Poverty: Welfare Retrenchment and the Experience of Food Bank Use

Dave Beck (Bangor University)


Between 2012 and 2018 food poverty across the UK has risen, where the numbers of those seeking help has surpassed the one million mark (Trussell Trust, 2018). Evident through the use of the food bank, this rise in food poverty has triggered the growth of the emergency food aid sector, as a way for people to be able to provide sustenance for themselves and their families. As a marker of austerity policies, the growth of the emergency food aid landscape, recognisable through organisations such as the ‘food bank’ have seen their presence increase, and in turn social the acceptability of these places, as providers of food has become permissible to a concerned public.

Attending to this growing number of food banks across Wales, research findings have brought clarity to the experience of having to seek help from a food bank in order to provide sustenance. Understanding food bank use as two modes of ‘experience’, this research has mapped both the quantitative geographical ‘experience’ of food banks, as a growing industry, alongside the qualitative ‘experience’ from understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ people have had to turn to them for help.


“It’s all in how you eat”: Healthcare decision making among mobile food pantry clients in Tampa Bay

Sarah Bradley (University of South Florida)


Across Tampa Bay, Florida, food insecure families struggle with balancing their health care costs and household food expenses. This mixed methods research project examined food insecurity and healthcare decision making among clients of a mobile food pantry run by Feeding America and sponsored by a local health insurance company that specializes in insurance for low income families. Results from quantitative survey data, qualitative interviewing, and photovoice methods showed high rates of not only food insecurity, but also stress and chronic health conditions among the client population. Long term dependency on food pantry services was common, because for many households, food security could only be achieved through a reliable supply of free food resources. Findings suggest that fruits and vegetables supplied by the mobile pantry allowed clients to manage some chronic health conditions and mitigate the financial burden of health care costs.  However, because food pantries are designed to target hunger instead of nutrition, sometimes the available food did not meet the needs of diet-sensitive conditions. Evidence suggests that without greater accessibility to government or health care assistance programs, long term food security independent of pantry services will be difficult to achieve for this population.


The Politics of Food Banking in the UK

Alan Connolly (Lancaster University)


This paper examines views on the political aspects of the burgeoning of the food bank sector in the UK in the period from 2010 to 2017. There is a repetition in public discourse of the food bank as a symbol of ‘Britain gone wrong’, and this has frequently been used to criticise the government regarding perceived drivers of food bank use. Analysis of interviews I conducted with food bank staff, people using food banks and other stakeholders in the Liverpool City Region show that most interviewees are critical of the government in this way. My research, however, also found that their opinions on the wider political factors of food bank provision are complex and varied. They range from criticism of government social security policies to beliefs that the system is too generous; and from critiques of negative stereotypes of those receiving social security payments to arguments employing such stereotypes. Views on the relevance of issues such as immigration and foreign aid are similarly diverse. The political and historical backdrop of the issues raised will be considered in order to put these views in context, and other academic literature and press reporting on food banks will also be discussed.


‘Because they’re like secrets’: understanding stigma and shame in the context of children’s experiences of food insecurity

Annie Connolly (University of Leeds and End Hunger UK)


The extent to which children’s diets are impacted by household food insecurity is contested (Nord, 2013; Harvey, 2016; Fram and Frongillo, 2018), but leading academics in this field suggest that children in the United States experience food insecurity less via material dimensions, that is to say the quantity and quality of their diet and more in terms of psycho-social impacts (Fram and Frongillo, 2018). This correlates with findings that parents buffer their children where possible from the effects of household food insecurity (Fram et al., 2011; Nord and Hopwood, 2007) and fits in with an increasing acknowledgement that experiences relating to poverty comprise much more than material deprivation, and that having to get by with very little money can have lasting damaging social and emotional impacts (Chase and Walker, 2012; Jo, 2013; Walker et al., 2013).

It is important to investigate the extent to which children are going hungry, but in terms of undertaking research, if we do not also identify and understand the psycho-social consequences of having to cope with extremely restricted resources not only will we not be able to understand people’s lived experiences in any meaningful way but we will not be able to recognise, and therefore steer policy-makers in the right direction to act upon, the determinants of poverty (Jo, 2013).  In line with this thinking, in my presentation I will discuss children’s encounters with the particularly harmful experiences of stigma and shame within the context of food insecurity, as found during 33 one-to-one interviews with children between 9 – 11 years old.


Charitable Responses to Holiday Hunger: Volunteers’ Motivations and Persistence

Stephanie Denning (Coventry University)


Faith-based organisations have become prominent actors in local responses to UK food poverty.  However, the dynamics and motivations underpinning faith-based volunteering in charitable food projects have been relatively under-theorised.  This paper critically examines the variegated ways in which faith motivates people to volunteer and how they persist in volunteering.  Using participatory methods, I established and ran a ‘MakeLunch’ project to respond to children’s food poverty in the school holidays at a church in a deprived inner-city area.  Using narratives from volunteers and myself, this paper draws on nonrepresentational theories to first, outline a theorisation of charitable food aid that emphasises the embodied relationships of care that can rework prevailing geographies of stigma, and secondly, reveal the ways in which religious faith could lead to volunteering holding more meaning for volunteers than simply giving food.  In this way, volunteers at the project were affected as much as the traditional “recipient” through their relationships with each other and the children, and how their expectations compared to experience.  Overall, I suggest for volunteers to persist and for community based approaches to be sustained, volunteers’ motivations must be continually re-ignited; in volunteers’ persistence there is a continual cycle of motivation, action and reflection.


Growing up hungry: young children’s experiences of food insecurity

Jon Eilenberg (National Children’s Bureau)


Our research aims to explore how food insecurity is viewed and experienced by young children. UNICEF numbers published in 2017 showed that 19% of British children under 15 live in households that experience moderate or severe food insecurity. There is a growing body of research that explores these numbers, the role of food banks, effects on child development and the possible solutions. There is, however, a general lack of children’s voices. According to the UN’s Convention of the Rights of the Child, every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. Food insecurity is a matter that affects children, and our research therefore aims at allowing them to express their views and experiences. Using the MOSAIC approach as a methodological framework, our project will engage with children as young as 3-4 years through interviews, drawings, photos, maps and guided tours. This will allow us to better understand children’s lived experience of food insecurity and concepts such as choice, postponement, dependency and stigma. The aim is for the findings to directly inform the work of researchers, charity workers and policy makers.


A strategy of last resort: food bank use in relation to food insecurity in Canada

Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain* (University of Toronto), Rachel Loopstra (King’s College London), Valerie Tarasuk (University of Toronto)


The prominence of food bank as a public response to food insecurity gives the illusion that it is the sole strategy used by food insecure households to augment their scarce resources. Drawing on the 2008 Canadian Household Panel Survey Pilot, we examined the interrelationship between household food insecurity and the use of food banks and other resource augmentation strategies. We found that most food insecure households asked for financial help from relatives or friends and nearly half delayed bill payment because of insufficient money, but only 1 in 5 accessed a food bank. Food insecure households using food banks appeared to be more desperate, with lower incomes and higher propensities to seek financial help from others. Our results lend support to the notion that food bank use is a strategy of last resort, while also highlighting opportunities to mitigate food insecurity through interventions directed towards households’ non-food needs. Entitlement programs providing debt relief or direct assistance to pay rent or bills would be better aligned with food insecure households’ own responses to financial hardships and potentially have greater and more lasting impact on food insecurity, given that these non-food needs comprise much larger components of the household budget.


The emergence of charitable food aid: How can lessons learned from the US and Canada protect against the institutionalisation of food aid in the UK?

Elisabeth Garratt (Oxford University)


Charitable food aid and foodbanks more specifically are a firmly established feature of policy landscapes in the US and Canada. The circumstances of high unemployment, political conservatism and welfare retrenchment in which foodbanks emerged in the UK in the late 2000s bear striking similarities with those in the US and Canada in previous decades. Such similarities prompt concerns that the UK is following the same path, and that foodbanks could soon become a permanent fixture in the UK too. Experiences from the US and Canada could thus provide valuable insights into how the UK’s ‘progress’ to foodbank entrenchment might be halted.

After briefly highlighting parallels between the development of foodbanking, this work compares and contrasts the roles and operations of foodbanks in these three countries. By identifying the key similarities and differences between foodbanking in different settings, I will discuss lessons learned from the experiences of the US and Canada, and suggest courses of action aimed at inhibiting the institutionalisation of UK food aid. In light of the crucial need for practical action and advocacy, I will conclude this presentation by considering ways forward for academics, the third sector, and those occupying advocacy roles.


Evaluating the Impact of Emergency Food Provision and Support

Andrea Gibbons* (University of Salford), Morven G. McEachern (University of Huddersfield), Caroline Moraes (University of Birmingham), and Lisa Scullion (University of Salford)


Fourteen million people live below the poverty line in the UK (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2017) and as a consequence, over 1.3m three-day emergency food supplies were donated in 2017-18 (Trussell Trust, 2018).  While much existing research highlights the escalation of emergency food support, user motivations and experiences (Garthwaite, 2016; Loopstra et al., 2016; Loopstra et al., 2018), there is an urgency for further research into the support mechanisms needed to assist individual transitions out of food poverty. As emergency food is accessed by over 8 million of families who have one person in work (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2017), this research aims to gain a more nuanced understanding of the types of additional support offered by emergency food providers and how they assist vulnerable individuals in navigating this period of liminality. Exploratory qualitative in-depth interviews will be gathered with a range of key emergency food providers in the Salford and Birmingham areas of the UK. Both of these areas have experienced a significant increase in levels of food poverty recently and are among the 10% most deprived local authority districts. Findings related to the variety of support mechanisms offered and their impact will be presented.


The institutionalisation of foodbanks: Discordant perceptions of legitimacy?

Katy Gordon (University of Strathclyde)


Concern with regard to the institutionalisation of foodbanks in the UK is growing.  Legitimacy is a central theoretical concept in organisational institutionalism. Legitimacy is commonly defined as “a generalised perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions”[1]. Legitimacy enhances the stability and survival of organisations. Its source can include society-at-large, the media and interorganisational relations. Indicators of legitimacy employed in research include organisational density, media coverage and endorsements.

Evidence from the UK emergency food aid sector suggests growth in these legitimacy indicators, alongside generous public donations to foodbanks. However, simultaneously, numerous voices call for an end to this form of food aid, some from within the sector itself.  To explore these discordant views on the legitimacy of foodbanks preliminary interviews have been held with members of the community food sector, uncovering an uncertainty about “doing the right thing” when it comes to emergency food aid. Further interviews will be conducted in the coming months and data will be analysed through the lens of legitimacy.


Social supermarkets in the United Kingdom: an Ethnographic Case Study of the West Norwood Community Shop, London

Emmanuelle Graciet (University College London)


Social supermarkets (SSMs) claim to ‘empower low-income individuals and build stronger communities’ by giving them access to heavily discounted surplus food, as well as personal and professional development programmes. Furthermore, they present themselves as less stigmatising and more sustainable than food banks, and are promoted as part of the solution to rising levels of food poverty. However, little research exists that examines how and whether SSMs meet their aims and whose interests they serve. My doctoral research therefore aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of this new phenomenon in the UK by describing what SSMs are, how they operate, and how they meet the different needs of their various stakeholders, both at the local and national level. Preliminary findings resulting from five months of ethnographic observation and informal stakeholder interviews in the West Norwood Community Shop indicate that the SSM is perceived as less stigmatising than food banks by those who have used both, a place that enables people to come out of their isolation and where ‘nobody judges you’, and that fosters a strong sense of community. However, its capacity to alleviate food poverty in the long term is less straightforward as many people are still using it past the initial one-year membership length.


“Its survival really” Life outside of Foodbank Britain

Kate Haddow (Teesside University)


Since 2011 the UK has witnessed what has been described as a foodbank explosion, it is something that has dominated media headlines and political discussions.  Recent research has well documented the experiences and reasons for those in need of charitable food parcels, particularly large nationally run food aid charities such as the Trussell Trust and Fareshare (Lambie-Mumford, 2017, Garthwaite, 2016, Taylor & Loopstra, 2016).  The limitations imposed on the services these charities provide mean it is almost impossible for people to depend on them on a daily basis, so what about people who are permanently food insecure?

Middlesbrough is one of the most deprived areas of the UK (IMD, 2015) and was identified as a town that would be least resilient to government cutbacks (Beatty and Fothergill, 2015).  Through an ethnographic study of male participants who rely on various sources of food aid on an almost daily basis such as independent foodbanks, community meals and breakfast club.  This paper will explore what life is like beyond the nationally run food aid charities, addressing the reasons for the need of charitable food and the drawbacks of localised charitable food systems.


Insecure and undocumented: Experiences of food security in households with an irregular migration status

Andy Jolly (University of Birmingham and University of Wolverhampton)


While there is a growing literature about the issue of household food security in the UK, both in the policy and academic fields, few have explored the issue of immigration status as a risk factor for food insecurity. Undocumented migrant households can therefore be seen as ‘undocumented’ in a dual sense of lacking immigration documentation, and an invisibility in the literature.

This paper draws on fieldwork with undocumented migrant families in Birmingham and the literature on ‘everyday bordering’ to explore the experiences of food insecurity amongst undocumented migrant households. The paper argues that differentiated access to food aid can be seen as a form of everyday bordering and that the high risk of food insecurity faced by undocumented migrant households in the UK is an inevitable result of processes of irregularisation, and the deliberate exclusion from social protection mechanisms as a form of border control.


Food insecurity among men in Scotland

Kathryn Machray (University of Glasgow)


This presentation will provide an overview of the qualitative literature on peoples’ experiences of food insecurity in the UK to identify areas for further research before discussing a proposed research project.

To date, the majority of qualitative research on food insecurity has examined charitable food aid provision with foodbanks as a particular focus. Understandings of lived food insecurity experiences beyond the foodbank setting and the potential differences in experiences between those who access support such as foodbanks and those who do not are under-researched.  There is also a lack of research on men’s experiences, despite the high number of single men utilising food banks, and varying geographical locations.

This proposed PhD study aims to explore men living in Scotland’s experiences of food insecurity using photo elicitation interviews. It aims to understand how living in different urban and rural settings (areas within and near Glasgow and Aberdeen) factor in to the experience of food insecurity.  The study will also examine how, aside from foodbank use, single or ‘vulnerable’ men mitigate, or cope with, food insecurity and what are the impacts on their social participation and networks.


The rise of food aid and the changing role of the welfare state – findings from a mixed-methods study in Scotland

Mary Anne MacLeod (University of Glasgow and Oxfam)


While charitable food aid provision has been well established in North America for decades, its formalisation and expansion within European welfare states is fairly new. Such developments provoke significant questions about how food aid is challenging and changing welfare states, particularly in countries where it has only recently become widespread.

This paper presents findings from a mixed-methods study which aims to understand the emerging role of food banks within the welfare state in Scotland. Using data from a survey of deprived neighbourhoods in the city of Glasgow, it provides the first analysis of a self-reported measure of food bank use in the UK. The paper also considers the extent to which people experiencing food insecurity do not use food banks, and their reasons for not going to one when facing such difficulties.

Qualitative findings foreground the perspectives of those working in direct welfare service provision on the growth of food aid, and examine how both people experiencing poverty and policy makers perceive the state-food aid relationship. Considering current policy discourse in Scotland, the implications of these findings for the role of the state as provider of a social security net and the future role of food aid here are examined.


Food banks, pastoral power and neoliberal subjectivities: A critical discourse analysis

Chris Moeller (University of Huddersfield)


In recent years, food bank research in the UK has proliferated with an ever-growing number of student and PhD projects now emerging in addition to studies by established academics and regular reports commissioned by the leading food charities. The institutionalisation of food charity in countries such as Canada or Germany has been accompanied by examples of critical social science and theoretically informed research. Here in the UK however the dominant narratives overwhelmingly present ¬– and often celebrate – food charity as a necessary but somewhat shameful community response to a retreating welfare state in times of austerity. However, this is based on a very limited understanding of power and governing practices in neoliberal societies. Drawing on insights from governmentality studies, critical psychology and Foucault’s work on pastoral power, this discourse analysis explores the ways food poverty is problematised by food banks and partner agencies in their everyday practices. Presenting interview data from one independent and two Trussell Trust food banks, I will show how the material and behavioural interventions mobilised here are instrumental in the transformation of vulnerable “clients in crisis” into resilient neoliberal subjects. Finally, I will consider possible avenues for developing a critical ethos and resisting the psychologisation of poverty.


Governing the food poor: Power and surveillance in a context of contemporary food insecurity and food aid

Maddy Power (University of York)


This paper examines networks of power involved in food insecurity and food aid, exploring how they operate through various forms and levels of surveillance. Primary research over 1 year consisted of ethnographic research and focus groups with 18 white British and Pakistani women in or at risk of food insecurity. The paper considers food insecurity and food aid using Foucault’s writings on power, specifically his rejection of a purely state-centred view of power in favour of ideas of ‘government’, ‘governmentality’ and ‘panopticism’ (surveillance). The paper explicates multiple forms of power exercised upon people living in or at risk of food insecurity through varying types of externally and internally imposed surveillance: the state, including the welfare state; the economy; civil society or, more specifically, food aid; the community; and, finally – and most potently – the self. The paper concludes that the pauperisation and obedience of the ‘food insecure’ is created and calcified by state policy, and by an economic structure that both informs state policy and whose inequalities in the ownership of wealth and the distribution of income are self-perpetuating. However, it is maintained by a set of social relations that keep this system in place. It is when the dominant economic and political system is most under threat that ‘poor’ or food insecure people are subject to the most severe criticism from the establishment, their peers and themselves.


A shifting discourse and practice away from emergency food provision: Insights from social supermarkets in Britain

Dr Lopamudra Patnaik Saxena (Coventry University)


Social supermarkets (SSMs) have emerged in Britain in the last five years. In the wider context of “austerity Britain”, they are positioning themselves between emergency food provision (i.e. food banks) on the one hand, and the mainstream retail sector on the other. They provide access to deeply discounted food ‘surplus’ in a retail-like environment along with wraparound support services (e.g. debt and welfare advice, skills development, cooking classes, etc.). In contrast to food banks, they offer a degree of choice and dignity to the food insecure. Drawing on our recently completed research on seven SSMs in Britain, this paper argues that their impact on the increasing numbers of people turning to them cannot be underestimated. Nonetheless, the ‘normalising’ of SSMs masks the problems to which such initiatives are emerging as a response in the first place. Our research has found that there is a lack of inclination to challenge policy and market mechanisms at the roots of food poverty and a food system that has become deeply problematic when it comes to delivering social justice, health and nutrition, and sustainability.


‘The public consumption of surplus food as a response to food insecurity in Nottingham: formative findings from a mapping exercise on ‘social eating’

Marsha Smith (Coventry University)


The prevalence of food insecurity in the UK and the increase in social isolation is compounded by the difficulty people on low incomes have in eating out, together. Convenience and fast foods are further implicated in the de-structuration or displacement of the shared meal. However, the significance of commensality, or eating together in groups, continues to be a socially-organising force that might offer a pragmatic response to the challenges outlined. In the East Midlands local initiatives have developed a type of public meal provision called ‘social eating’ that explicitly encourages the convivial aspects of commensality. To gain insights into social eating, a co-created, participatory ‘mapping’ method was piloted with customers across five sites in Nottingham. This presentation discusses formative findings around the value of social eating to customers, and reflects on how the Nottingham Social Eating Network is working to frame its offer and amplify its impact. In framing social eating as a public, convenient, convivial activity, a non-stigmatising approach to eating affordably together has been developed. The formative findings position social eating as an activity with positive effects beyond sustenance and as one form of alternative response to food insecurity and social isolation.


A positive alternative? Lessons from Woodlands Community Cafe

Helen Traill (London School of Economics) and Tim Cowen (Woodlands Community Cafe, Glasgow)



Woodlands Community Café was set up in response to escalating food poverty in Glasgow. Serving over 15,000 meals in 4 years, the café is a pioneering example of how community food provision can respond to local need. The café is recognised as an example of best practice and has influenced Scottish Government policy around food aid. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and the practical experience of running the café, we will reflect on the challenges and potentials of communal responses to food insecurity. The café’s model of shared meals offers a positive alternative to food banks as a way of responding to food insecurity. Focusing on the transformative capacity of the café, we will highlight the important temporal aspects of community food provision, particularly the way services are hampered by a short-term, project-driven funding landscape. We will discuss the challenges of sustaining services and the insecurity of food-aid projects. We will also draw attention to the political implications of a transformational model of local vegetarian food provision, and consider the structural barriers to a greater political role for charitable organisations in this context. By so doing, we argue for the potency of eating collectively, and opening up communal spaces for empowerment.