This blog post is a summary of my latest academic article: ‘The vital politics of foodbanking: Hunger, austerity, biopower.’ Published in the journal Political Geography, it draws on my previous ethnographic research in a set of food banks in the Valleys of south Wales.
Food bank Britain
The distribution of charitable food in the country continues at a seemingly unprecedented rate. During the previous annual reporting period (April 2018-2019), the Trussell Trust – who operate around half of all UK food banks –distributed over 1.5 million packages of three-days-worth of emergency food.
The scale of these activities should shock us, especially given their rapid escalation (the Trussell Trust has seen its operations increase twenty-five fold in the last eight years alone). But what we should also be concerned about – and what my article centres on – is to think about the forms of regulation, control and scrutiny that are intertwined with these new channels of charitable food.
The article develops the concept ‘vital politics’ to think about how people who use food banks find the experience. The concept, of course, has two immediate meanings: of vitalness in terms of just how important these provisions are at a time of austerity (for many, they are all that stands between subsistence and hunger). But vital politics also aims to capture what we might also think of as our vitality – of the health, capacities and abilities available and expected of our bodies.
In the article, I argue that foodbanks are productive of certain kinds of vitality that are based on a set of techniques for measuring need. Most notably, these include what can be coercive forms of surveillance (a voucher system, electronic records of user details, registered signatories, and so on) that aim to measure how much food people are allowed to. The intentions behind these approaches are apparent, but they can have strongly negative consequences – including people in need being turned away, and instilling a particular model that functions on misleading depictions of those ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of food charity.
At its core, however, these rules that determine how much food someone can receive are not set in stone. Indeed, it is often the case that food bank volunteers and staff will deliberately undermine them in order to ensure that hungry individuals and households are provisioned for. In this sense, the conceptualisation of vital politics I develop in the article is first and foremost a scene of contestation and resistance – where different interpretations and models of vitality are exercised and negotiated, and where individuals find compromises in the system in order to ensure emergent channels of subsistence.
The article is currently freely available here https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1ZUFV3Qu6uNikO, or a copy can be found under the ‘academic writings’ banner of this website.