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Who cares? Food banks and the poverty of morality.

Professor Benedetta Cappellini considers the normalisation of food banks during the global pandemic.

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 through my work, I criticise a form of neoliberal morality that is associated with a 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 diversity 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 is mainly provided by the larger food banks, is considered an underestimation of the number of food bank users and households experiencing food insecurity.

As data is 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.

Continue reading this article in the Business School’s eighth issue of IMPACT magazine.

More information

IMPACT magazine is Durham University Business School’s magazine, with the eighth issue launching this month. See a video preview here and the full magazine here.

Professor Benedetta Cappellini is a Professor in Marketing (Strategy) at the School – find out more about Professor Cappellini’s research here.