This blog post is a summary of a recently published article in the journal cultural geographies. The piece considers the political and ethical stakes of exploring the body as a tool in research - specifically by asking: what can we learn about food banks by tasting them?
Taking Back Taste
What led me to ask this question was a set of challenges that I experienced in my fieldwork in the Valleys of south Wales. As part of my study, I volunteered at a local food bank two days a week. Spending time both those using and operating the food bank, I was struck by two things.
The first were the limits to 'nutritionist' understandings of what food banks do: in particular, the food they provision takes on far more meaning and resonance than can be captured by counting the calories or nutritional content of packages of food. Second were the similar set of limits in understanding when trying to talk to people receiving food about what it would mean to them. Our encounters were defined by the limits of language to describe the incredibly personal, embodied and visceral experience of eating; and imprinted by the sense of gratitude accompanying the receipt of charitable food.
Facing these challenges, I decided on a different approach - I would eat a food bank diet to see how effective it was at staving off hunger, how it made me feel, and how such an undertaking might help identify ways of improving the service.
The food bank diet
I followed this diet for a calendar month, eating 10 consecutive packages of three-days-worth of food as defined by the Trussell Trust set menu. My experiences surprised me in some ways; in others, they did not. I was struck by the blandness of the food; by the practical difficulties in eating a diet of dried and tinned food when going about my daily life; and how I came to feel differently in my broader mood and sense of wellbeing. I quickly ran out of some foods, whilst others were surplus, as my eating habits morphed over the month.
But perhaps what the venture made me think most about was its own limits too: my entire experience of eating this diet served to reflect back to me my previous eating habits - eating habits that were privileged. In the past, I've rarely felt hunger pangs - and when I have, they've been largely self imposed. I've had free rein over what, when and where I eat. Eating, for me, at least before this diet, was an exercise in met desires and performed pleasures.
The potential of auto-corporeal methods
My argument in the article, then, is that whilst these types of methodology - auto-corporeal methods, I term them - can help us to think in new ways about social and spatial phenomenon, they are perhaps more useful as a way of excavating our own place within the contested spaces and relations that we study.
This diet allowed me to think, for instance, about the aspects of my privilege that extend beyond abstract descriptors like male, white, able-bodied, and so on. It also motivated me even more to contribute to the work and efforts of organisations like food banks that are often the difference between eating and not eating for millions in the UK today.