Critical social work and political responses to food poverty
With this understanding, there is immense potential to explore foodbanks through a critical social work lens, drawing attention first to analysing the role of government in perpetuating the maintenance of individualised explanations for poverty.
The rise of neoliberal political discourse is dependent on the repositioning of humans as independent individuals, responsible for their own actions and fortunes (Parton, 2014). This understanding necessitates an individualised response to both providing support, and for allocating blame, along with individual feelings of shame and failure (Gupta, 2015). As food is seen increasingly as fundamental to our identity formation (Purdam et al., 2016; Emond et al., 2014), in a neoliberal society, the inability to acquire adequate food for ourselves and our families is necessarily interpreted as an individual failing, affecting identity, and generating feelings of shame and embarrassment (Purdam et al., 2016). This explanation is supported by the overwhelming evidence that people will only access foodbanks for support as an absolute last resort (Garthwaite, 2016; Loopstra and Lalor, 2017).
This discourse of individualised understanding is generated and perpetuated by political activity in the UK. The introduction of the ‘big society’ agenda first proposed in David Cameron’s 2010 Conservative manifesto and promoted during the coalition government epitomises the then prime minister’s ideological position on the role of the state. This ‘participatory’, community-led initiative, evoking an asset-based response to local social problems initially appears to fit well with the emergence of foodbanks. Although this agenda seems to contradict the individualised neoliberal perspective, it does position responsibility for responding to social problems such as food poverty, in the hands of the communities, rather than government. This is a position that has resulted in entrenched charitable emergency food provision in Canada and the USA (McIntyre et al., 2016).
The initial response of the Conservative-majority coalition government to the emergence of organised foodbanks, particularly the franchise model utilised by The Trussell Trust, was positive, with the prime minister openly praising their work in Parliament and linking them to the ‘Big Society’ initiative (Wells and Caraher, 2014). This explanation repositions both blame and responsibility for food poverty with communities themselves. The role of the ‘big society’ in locating blame with communities diverts attention, preventing the realisation that systemic structural and ideological inequalities are at the centre of explanations for poverty. The prevailing neo-liberal discourse of individual responsibility obstructs opportunities for communities to work together to challenge the powerful (Gupta, 2015).
As foodbanks became more established, government’s response, particularly to The Trussell Trust, provides further evidence for a CSW interpretation. In their analysis of print media coverage of food poverty, Wells and Caraher (2014) identify the emergence of a ‘frame contest’ between Trussell and government, with Trussell using their referral statistics to push government to accept responsibility for the growth in foodbank use and key politicians moving to deny any link between welfare reform and foodbank use. Notably lan Duncan Smith (the then Work and Pensions Secretary), Esther McVey and Edwina Curry' all attempted to publicly denounce government’s role and locate blame finnfy with the individual foodbank users, framing them as ‘lazy’, ‘workshy’ and referring to poor budgeting and cooking skills as reasons for the rise in referrals (Garthwaite,
2016). The Trussell Trust model echoes some of these explanations by denying users a choice of foods, on the basis that they will not be able to exercise choice responsibly. Other explanations proffered by government included the rationale that food poverty was not rising, but that the presence of foodbanks themselves was encouraging dependence and enabling users to spend their money on ‘cigarettes, booze and mobile phones’. This response demonstrates the ferocity with which those in positions of power work to protect the neoliberal agenda (Livingstone, 2015).
The long-awaited recommendations from the All-Part)’ Inquiry (2014) appeared to counter neoliberal rhetoric, with Bishop Tim Thornton appealing for communities ‘as a society, to reach out to all’ in the introduction to the report. The Bishop claims that communities have lost the ‘glue’ due to the ‘commodification’ of people (p. 5) and urges society to stop blaming individuals, both those in poverty and in government for the issues at hand. The report makes 77 recommendations that plan to tackle food poverty, alongside other forms of destitution with three main strategies. Primarily, to reduce demand on emergency food providers in order to focus on the most vulnerable. Secondly, to encourage a ‘foodbank plus’ model where additional support can be offered (this is a strategy some Trussell franchises have implemented). Finally, to increase the redistribution of surplus food from wholesalers and supermarkets.
As previously identified, the recommendations were endorsed by an open letter to the prime minister, published in The Lancet (Ashton et al., 2014). Ten of the recommendations relating directly to food poverty explicitly identified a continued role for voluntary emergency food providers, with some suggestions of expanding this role to include additional support. Despite the recommendations being thorough and extensive in challenging government to reconsider many aspects of the welfare reform agenda, the idea of voluntary providers of emergency food aid becoming an entrenched response to food poverty is one that is explicitly warned against (Poppendieck, 1999; McIntyre et al., 2016; Garthwaite, 2016). Not only does the establishment of such a response create inconsistency in provision, but it also perpetuates the positioning of responsibility for food poverty with individuals and communities rather than with government and structural oppressors (Livingstone, 2015).
Recognising that organisations such as Trussell are now considered at least part of the solution for tackling food poverty (Lambie-Mumford, 2013), we now analyse their work from a critical social work perspective.
Can foodbanks be counter-practice?
Considering Healy’s (2000) definition of critical social work, I believe counter-practice can be considered any form of practice that refutes individualised explanations for and responses to oppression whilst endorsing activism and challenging the structural reasons for inequality. It is practice that actively attempts to create counter-strategies to existing discourses of power and oppression. In contemporary UK society, foodbanks are in a unique position in relation to these ideas, however, they should not automatically be accepted as counter-practice. Here we will analyse aspects of current emergency food provision in the UK in relation to a CSW position. As most data about foodbanks and food poverty in the UK stems from The Trussell Trust, this will be reflected in the discussion.
The politics of gatekeeping
If we observe the franchise model of The Trussell Trust, which utilises a voucher-based referral system, we see that this system requires a referring organisation to validate that an individual needs or indeed is deserving of assistance. The Trussell website describes ‘professionals’ as identifying those in need (www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do) establishing the elevated position of their knowledge. Individuals who arrive at a foodbank without a validated voucher are to be refused a food package and are asked to seek out a voucher and return to be issued a parcel (Garthwaite, 2016); here we can see hierarchies in operation. The reality of this means that individuals with no material resources may have to walk several miles to have their need ‘validated’.
As an emergency food provision, The Trussell Trust limits the number of vouchers, and hence food parcels to one household can be issued to three over a ‘crisis’ period. The rationale here is that established support services should have been engaged to resolve the crisis within this timeframe. Many researchers have identified that this is often not the case, and that people often return after their three-parcel limit. The ‘three-package’ rule, although rationalised, serves to perpetuate feelings of embarrassment and shame felt by those seeking emergency food provision (Gupta, 2015, Purdam et al., 2015). The combination of unmet needs for support due to the impact welfare reforms, and individualised feelings of shame, nurtured by neoliberal policy and social practices means that foodbank users are increasingly isolated. This isolation in turn further reduces the possibility of the communal action required to challenge entrenched power structures.
Referring to the Trussell model as ‘the franchising of the disenfranchised’, Livingstone (2015) identifies that this structure is not openly questioned and is accepted as the ‘only’ model of foodbank. This is echoed by Wells and Caraher (2014) who note the absence of such discussion in the print media. The uncritical acceptance of any system that privileges ‘professional’ opinion over other types of knowledge cannot be considered a CSW approach, and by its nature can be seen as reinforcing systems of discrimination and oppression.
One of the key recommendations from the 2014 All-Party Inquiry into food poverty was the establishment of a ‘foodbank plus’ model. This recommendation was based on evidence that foodbank volunteers identified several users were in need of additional support services due to experiencing deprivations including fuel poverty, debt, ill health and employment/educational needs. It was proposed that existing foodbanks, notably The Trussell Trust, would be ideally situated to signpost and potentially provide these support services, with ideas that included positioning DWP officers at foodbanks, along with running cooking classes and debt management workshops.
The idea of a ‘one-stop-shop’ is familiar in social work, indeed local authorities often adopt such a format for providing ‘low level’ multi-professional support to their communities from a single platform (Askim et al., 2011). It is not the ‘one-stop-shop’ format that a CSW approach contests here, nor the necessity of providing additional support, but the suitability of charitable organisations to deliver it.
To work in partnership with government organisations such as the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), who are responsible for the administration of welfare reform, the primary reason that emergency food parcels is a requirement (Loopstra and Lalor, 2017) significantly compromises the foodbank’s ability to challenge these oppressive policies and the structures that promote them. The Trussell Trust consistently campaigns to government to acknowledge their role in alleviating food poverty through reporting their bi-annual statistics and frequent press releases (www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/press-and-media/press-releases/) however by partnering with the DWP and other established authorities they appear to endorse their existence.
Reports that users of foodbanks praise and encourage the availability of additional support via the foodbank could be understood as countering this CSW position. The Trussell Trust has always signposted its users to other local organisations for extra support and prides itself on the inclusive and warm atmosphere of its distribution centres. This atmosphere is credited to the foodbank volunteers, many of whom have previously been on the receiving end of the service (Garthwaite, 2016). Ian Duncan Smith initially proposed the presence of DWP officials inside foodbanks during his time as minister for Work & Pensions, before The Trussell Trust challenged the welfare reforms. Critics like McKenzie (2015) and Cummins (2018) would see these moves as an attempt by the state to colonise this initiative with the aim of extending its regulatory functions.
Alongside DWP representatives, recommendations from the committee for a ‘foodbank plus’ service included cooking and parenting classes, debt management support, and health advice. These are all valid and necessary support systems that could benefit individuals in all socioeconomic positions. It is the targeted nature of these provisions that reinforces the perception of people living in poverty because they lack skills, knowledge and/or motivation to achieve change. This position is unsupported and research suggests that those with limited resources demonstrate high levels of budgeting skills and are all too aware of their health and dietary needs, indeed they are unable to meet these needs primarily because of a lack of funds (Dowler, 2003; Garthwaite, 2016).
Recent reports have seen the emergence of foodbank-style organisations providing baby items; in Aberdeenshire and Bristol the establishment of baby banks claims to have provided support for 650 families in their first two years (www.babybanknetwork.com). The concern about the appearance of these well-meaning services is that in adapting to meet the diverse and growing areas of material need, the issue becomes depoliticised (Livingstone, 2015). While these provisions exist, the urgency for government to address them is essentially, reduced. Additionally, the more established and entrenched reliance on these voluntary systems becomes, the more they are perceived as an essential part of the solution.