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(2017-8) Beyond the developing world: Anthropological perspectives on foodbanks

By Laurie Sinclair-Emerson, Rebekah MacDonnald, Joseph Llewellin, Shamima Khonat

Food poverty has been defined as the ‘inability to acquire or eat an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways’ (Dowler et al., 2001). Food poverty has been shown to rise significantly over the last decade. For example, in 2013 there was a 19% increase in hospitalizations due to malnutrition, compared to 2012 (Garthwaite et al, 2015). Accordingly, foodbanks have grown rapidly in the UK in recent years. For example, there was a 76% growth in foodbank usage in 2017 (Bradford north foodbank, 2017). In this blog post, we will present several anthropological perspectives on foodbanking. We will show that although anthropology has been critical of all aspects of foodbanks, it has provided few suggestions for improvement or ways that they can be used as spaces of change. This will lead us to argue, in line with Scheper-Hughes (2017) and Hemmings (2005), that anthropology needs to take a more productive role in fighting poverty and suffering.

Foodbanks are reliant on volunteers and donors. We can link this to Mauss’ term—the ‘pure’ gift, which is an idea of the gift that is free of the obligation to reciprocate. The process of gifting creates social relations between the giver and receiver, even though they have different social statuses (Caplan, 2016). Volunteers act as ‘listening agencies’ (Ibid) and are vital for the existence of foodbanks. It is a gift where ‘reciprocation’ is not expected (Ibid). However it is clear that the givers also receive gain from the work. For some, it is a social activity or experience for a job application. The act of giving could also provide the individual a purpose to their life (Ibid). This raises questions about the level of ‘purity’ of the gift. Moreover, the state benefits from volunteers/unpaid labourers who are doing the work of the government for free. Similarly foodbanks are used by supermarkets as a for-profit marketing strategy. Private businesses are increasingly partnering up with foodbanks as a new marketing opportunity to increase consumerism. Attaching charitable aspects to the business can draw in more customers.

Muehlebach (2011) examines the case of post-fordism in Florence, Italy, where the state has established a heavy focus on volunteering in foodbanks. Post-Fordism has created a condition of joblessness within Italy, where people who were previously employed by factories now find themselves unemployed and without purpose. Within this space, an individual’s sense of self-worth is based around the contribution they are seen to give to society. A remedy to this is to volunteer in local foodbanks, so that an image of work is presented to the community. The Italian state has seized this idea and heavily promoted this culture of volunteering in order to ensure the continuance of foodbanks. From a Marxist perspective, this is viewed as parasitical labour. Essentially, the state begins to promote unpaid work. In this way, the use of foodbanks and the state of unemployment becomes legitimized in the eyes of the community through entrenched ideas of giving.

Garthwait et al (2015) have shown that foodbanks can be seen to prop up the system that makes them necessary. They show how a massive cause of foodbank usage has been the welfare reforms introduced under the coalition and the conservative government since 2010. For example, punitive measures for missing job seekers meetings unfairly impact those with mental and physical health issues. The result of these reforms is that these people need to go to foodbanks. However, they argue that these foodbanks’ existence prevent their causing problems ever being addressed, as it is seen as a technical solution to poverty. The foodbanks, then, can be seen as a steam valve for the pressure that builds under the system that makes them necessary. While they offer plenty of criticism of the current state of affairs, Garthwait et al offer no immediate solutions.

The large number of emergency food projects and the multiplicity of political perspectives bring to the forefront significant questions about how participation could change both volunteers and service users, and effect deeper processes of ethical and political transformation within the space of the foodbank itself. Scheper-Hughes (2017) and Hemmings (2005) critique anthropology’s reluctance to act. In response, we suggest that the responsibility for the common can become a space of possibility, action, and hope. Ethical practice can therefore be seen as the discovery of an emotionally committed sense for the other through moral values and sensibilities. By opening doors to hungry people, the collective presence of visible need and the range of gathered humanity could enable a sense of community, a space of mutual shaping. For users, this could provide an opening up of a space demonstrating democratic possibilities. For volunteers, the experience of encountering people in need may generate a deeper understanding, both of social marginality and the political system surrounding foodbanks.

With this in mind, through the giving and receiving of foodbanking, an ethical in-commonness that has an affective and performative potential for transformation can arise. It is this that we are suggesting that anthropology should begin to focus on. Building on this, we urge anthropology to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering that it has become a passive commentator of.


Bradford north foodbank (2017). 76% increase in emergency food parcels issued during past year. Available at: Accessed: 28/11/2017

Caplan, P. (2016) Big Society or broken society? Food banks in the UK. Anthropology Today, 32(1), pp.5-9.

Dowler, E., Turner, S., Dobson, B. (2001). Poverty Bites: Food, Health and Poor Families. CPAG, London.

Garthwaite, K., Collins, P. and Bambra, C. (2015). Food for thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank. Social Science & Medicine, 132, pp.38-44.

Hemmings, C. P. (2005): ‘Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology is Failing Medicine’, Anthropology and Medicine 12(2): 91-103.

Muehlebach, A. (2011) ‘On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy’, Cultural Anthropology, 26(1), pp. 59–82.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2017). Celebrating ‘barefoot anthropology’ — a Q&A with Nancy Scheper-    Hughes. [online] Berkeley News. Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2017].