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Who Cares? Food banks and the morality of poverty

By Professor Benedetta Cappellini, Professor in Marketing (Strategy) - October 2020

One of the unexpected consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the normalisation of food banks, which, from being a contested third-sector response to austerity policies, are now part of government

discourse on food safety for the community. While many applaud their existence on the moral stand that ‘something is better than nothing’, others find the proliferation of food banks something very bitter to swallow.

I am in the latter group and with my work I criticise a form of neoliberal morality that is associated with a priori glorification of food banks as a third-sector or marketplace response to structural inequality and social injustice.

I do not criticise the restless effort, goodwill or work (mostly done on a volunteering basis) of individuals involved in charities or community food providers; what I criticise is the process through which the government is delegating to the third sector strategies, plans and actions to tackle the socio-economic inequalities of accessing food. Such inequalities cannot be solved by a fragile food-aid system, which under the pandemic has become even more vulnerable.

Fragile food aid

The fragility and heterogeneity of the food-aid system was evident in fieldwork that I conducted with colleagues before the pandemic. One of the striking outcomes of our study was the scarce accountability of the food-aid system: we do not really know how many people get access to food banks and what type of support they receive. The data, which are mainly provided by the larger food banks, are considered an underestimation of the number of food bank users and households experiencing food insecurity.

As data are limited, we do not have a clear overview of how food providers support people in need. In our fieldwork conducted in the Midlands, we observed how organisations enact care very differently, even when they are located in the same city or neighbourhood.

In a forthcoming paper in Journal of Business Research, we provide an overview of the caring work that we observed in our fieldwork, having interviewed volunteers and managers of various organisations. We were inspired by feminist scholars who see ethics of care as a set of values and practices driven by feelings of responsibility for, and awareness of, how one can enhance and support the wellbeing of vulnerable others.

Elements of care

In particular, we were inspired by Tronto, who identifies elements that are, at the same time, stages, but also dispositions. In applying some of these stages to our data, we framed our analysis around ‘caring about’, the first phase, which allowed us to understand how the problem of food poverty is framed by an organisation – the question here is ‘what is the nature of the problem we care about?’ The second phase, ‘caring for’, is largely about responsibility – who is responsible for addressing food poverty? The third phase, ‘care giving’, then determines how the practices of care are enacted.

In short, and this is over simplifying, these phases guided us to understand the what, the who, and the how of caring. This allowed us to connect the values of an organisation (the what, and the who) to the caring practices (the how) of its members.

We found that there is no universal way of framing and enacting care, and that differences are mainly due to what we have called ‘care orientation’ – the structural, contextual and cultural characteristics of an organisation, including its scope, set of beliefs, standards, ideas and ideals, which position its work of caring. We identified three orientations: market-oriented care, faith- oriented care and neighbourhood-oriented care.

Organisations enacting market-oriented care see wellbeing as a matter of individual empowerment in the marketplace. While they see the problem of food hunger as a structural problem of food availability, their values and practices are mainly focused on the individual, around the dimensions of food literacy and on food marketing.

Thus, values and practices are orientated to teaching and skilling in relation to food nutrition and consumption practices (from acquisition to food preparation). These are orientated towards improving receivers’ cultural capital via practices in which there is a clear dyadic relationship between the care giver (who teaches) and the care receiver (who learns). This individualised and hierarchical care orientation appears to merely reproduce habitual value that remains rooted in (and serves to reproduce) the mundane.

Faith and food

Organisations with faith-oriented care tend to frame their values and practices on wellbeing around the dimension of food socialisation. Here the focus is on a response to material and spiritual needs through care practices of listening, feeding and praying, delivered by the church community and guided by the values of spiritual nourishment. Such practices aim at developing receivers’ social capital, which is achieved by one-to-one or group activities in which food is seen simply as a tool for facilitating socialisation. Relationships emerging between service provider and receiver are a mixture of communal and hierarchical relations. Most care practices are provided on a one-to-one basis, which tend to replicate the hierarchical view of a care receiver who needs to be helped to fix her/his own problems.

Organisations with neighbourhood-oriented care place the greatest emphasis on the values of commonality and community. Values and practices are oriented towards wellbeing understood around the dimension of food availability and food socialisation. Values and practices aim at redistributing food and building-up local, place- based, social capital for the entire community, including the carers. Hierarchical relationships are not so visible within these organisations in which receivers are not defined as individuals lacking skills or in need of spiritual support.

Receivers are defined as vulnerable members of the community and are helped by carers who are recognised as being in a relatively ‘better’ position. This care orientation foregrounds the role of emotions through which the creation of a sense of self-worth is mutual. However, the data highlight that these organisations are very unstructured and precarious considering the limited numbers of volunteers, the scarcity of food they can gather and their unstable premises (one participant set up a food bank in their garage).

Regardless of different care orientations, all organisations provide care that is more than parcels of food. Our concern is that such care around food is now at risk and the support provided is more precarious. The reduced operational capacity, due to the limited food supply that charities are able to gather and the reduced number of volunteers able to access the premises, has jeopardised independent and small food providers, some having reached a breaking point. That raises alarming concerns for those who really care.

Click here for more information on Professor Cappellini’s research interests.

  • Parsons, E; Kearney, T., Surman, E., Cappellini. B., Moffat, S., Harman, V and Scheurenbrand, K. (2020) ‘Who Really Cares? Introducing an ‘Ethics of Care’ to Debates on Transformative Value Co- creation’ Journal of Business Research.