Food Banks: A Lens on the Hungry Body

Anita Howarth



In Britain, hunger is often hidden in the privacy of the home. Yet otherwise private hunger is currently being rendered public and visible in the growing queues at charity-run food banks, where emergency food parcels are distributed directly to those who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families adequately (Downing et al.; Caplan). Food banks, in providing emergency relief to those in need, are responses to crisis moments, actualised through an embodied feeling of hunger that cannot be alleviated. The growing queues at food banks not only render hidden hunger visible, but also serve as reminders of the corporeal vulnerability of the human body to political and socio-economic shifts.

A consideration of corporeality allows us to view the world through the lived experiences of the body. Human beings are “creatures of the flesh” who understand and reason, act and interact with their environments through the body (Johnson 81). The growing academic interest in corporeality signifies what Judith Butler calls a “new bodily ontology” (2). However, as Butler highlights, the body is also vulnerable to injury and suffering. An application of this ontology to hunger draws attention to eating as essential to life, so the denial of food poses an existential threat to health and ultimately to survival. The body’s response to threat is the physiological experience of hunger as a craving or longing that is the “most bodily experience of need […] a visceral desire locatable in a void” in which an empty stomach “initiates” a series of sounds and pangs that “call for action” in the form of eating (Anderson 27). Food bank queues serve as visible public reminders of this precariousness and of how social conditions can limit the ability of individuals to feed themselves, and so respond to an existential threat.

Corporeal vulnerability made visible elicits responses that support societal interventions to feed the hungry, or that stigmatise hungry people by withdrawing or disparaging what limited support is available. Responses to vulnerability therefore evoke nurture and care or violence and abuse, and so in this sense are ambiguous (Butler; Cavarero). The responses are also normative, shaped by social and cultural understandings of what hunger is, what its causes are, and whether it is seen as originating in personal or societal failings. The stigmatising of individuals by blaming them for their hunger is closely allied to the feelings of shame that lie at the “irreducible absolutist core” of the idea of poverty (Sen 159). Shame is where the “internally felt inadequacies” of the impoverished individual and the “externally inflicted judgments” of society about the hungry body come together in a “co-construction of shame” (Walker et al. 5) that is a key part of the lived experience of hunger. The experience of shame, while common, is far from inevitable and is open to resistance (see Pickett; Foucault); shame can be subverted, turned from the hungry body and onto the society that allows hunger to happen. Who and what are deemed responsible are shaped by shifting ideas and contested understandings of hunger at a particular moment in time (Vernon).

This exploration of corporeal vulnerability through food banks as a historically located response to hunger offers an alternative to studies which privilege representations, objectifying the body and “treating it as a discursive, textual, iconographic and metaphorical reality” while neglecting understandings derived from lived experiences and the responses that visible vulnerabilities elicit (Hamilakis 99). The argument made in this paper calls for a critical reconsideration of classic political economy approaches that view hunger in terms of a class struggle against the material conditions that give rise to it, and responses that ultimately led to the construction of the welfare state (Vernon). These political economy approaches, in focusing on the structures that lead to hunger and that respond to it, are more closed than Butler’s notion of ambiguous and constantly changing social responses to corporeal vulnerability. This paper also challenges the dominant tradition of nutrition science, which medicalises hunger. While nutrition science usefully draws attention to the physiological experiences and existential threat posed by acute hunger, the scientific focus on the “anatomical functioning” of the body and the optimising of survival problematically separates eating from the social contexts in which hunger is experienced (Lupton 11, 12; Abbots and Lavis). The focus in this article on the corporeal vulnerability of hunger interweaves contested representations of, and ideas about, hunger with the physiological experience of it, the material conditions that shape it, and the lived experiences of deprivation. Food banks offer a lens onto these experiences and their complexities.

Food Banks: Deprivation Made Visible

Since the 1980s, food banks have become the fastest growing charitable organisations in the wealthiest countries of North America, Europe, and Australasia (Riches), but in Britain they are a recent phenomenon. The first opened in 2000, and by 2014, the largest operator, the Trussell Trust, had over 420 franchised food banks, and more recently was opening more than one per week (Lambie-Mumford et al.; Lambie-Mumford and Dowler). British food banks hand out emergency food relief directly to those who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families adequately, and have become new sites where deprivation is materialised through a congregation of hungry people and the distribution of food parcels. The food relief parcels are intended as short-term immediate responses to crisis moments felt within the body when the individual cannot alleviate hunger through their own resources; they are for “emergency use only” to ameliorate individual crisis and acute vulnerability, and are not intended as long-term solutions to sustained, chronic poverty (Perry et al.). The need for food banks has emerged with the continued shrinkage of the welfare state, which for the past half century sought to mediate the impact of changing individual and social circumstances on those deemed to be most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. The proliferation of food banks since the 2009 financial crisis and the increased public discourse about them has normalised their presence and naturalised their role in alleviating acute food poverty (Perry et al.).

Media images of food bank queues and stacks of tins waiting to be handed out (Glaze; Gore) evoke collective memories from the early twentieth century of hunger marches in protest at government inaction over poverty, long queues at soup kitchens, and the faces of gaunt, unemployed war veterans (Vernon). After the Second World War, the spectre of communism and the expansionist agenda of the Soviet Union meant such images of hunger could become tools in a propaganda war constructed around the failure of the British state to care for its citizens (Field; Clarke et al; Vernon). The 1945 Labour government, elected on a social democratic agenda of reform in an era of food rationing, responded with a “war on want” based on the normative premise that no one should be without food, medical care, shelter, warmth or work. Labour’s response was the construction of the modern welfare state.

The welfare state signified a major shift in ideational understandings of hunger. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ideas about hunger had been rooted in a moralistic account of divine punishment for individual failure (Vernon). Bodily experiences of hunger were seen as instruments for disciplining the indigent into a work ethic appropriate for a modern industrialised economy. The infamous workhouses, finally abolished in 1948, were key sites of deprivation where restrictions on how much food was distributed served to punish or discipline the hungry body into compliance with the dominant work ethic (Vernon; Foucault). However, these ideas shifted in the second half of the nineteenth century as the hungry citizen in Britain (if not in its colonies) was increasingly viewed as a victim of wider forces beyond the control of the individual, and the notion of disciplining the hungry body in workhouses was seen as reprehensible. A humanitarian treatment of hunger replaced a disciplinarian one as a more appropriate response to acute need (Shaw; Vernon). Charitable and reformist organisations proliferated with an agenda to feed, clothe, house, and campaign on behalf of those most deprived, and civil society largely assumed responsibility for those unable to feed themselves. By the early 1900s, ideas about hunger had begun to shift again, and after the Second World War ideational changes were formalised in the welfare state, premised on a view of hunger as due to structural rather than individual failure, hence the need for state intervention encapsulated in the “cradle to grave” mantra of the welfare state, i.e. of consistent care at the point of need for all citizens for their lifetime (see Clarke and Newman; Field; Powell). In this context, the suggestion that Britons could go to bed hungry because they could not afford to feed themselves would be seen as the failure of the “war on want” and of an advanced modern democracy to fulfil its responsibilities for the welfare of its citizens.

Since the 1980s, there has been a retreat from these ideas. Successive governments have sought to rein in, reinvent or shrink what they have perceived as a “bloated” welfare state. In their view this has incentivised “dependency” by providing benefits so generous that the supposedly work-shy or “skivers” have no need to seek employment and can fund a diet of takeaways and luxury televisions (Howarth). These stigmatising ideas have, since the 2009 financial crisis and the 2010 election, become more entrenched as the Conservative-led government has sought to renew a neo-liberal agenda to shrink the welfare state, and legitimise a new mantra of austerity. This mantra is premised on the idea that the state can no longer afford the bloated welfare budget, that responsible government needs to “wean” people off benefits, and that sanctions imposed for not seeking work or for incorrectly filling in benefit claim forms serve to “encourage” people into work. Critics counter-argue that the punitive nature of sanctions has exacerbated deprivation and contributed to the growing use of food banks, a view the government disputes (Howarth; Caplan).

Food Banks as Sites of Vulnerable Corporeality

In these shifting contexts, food banks have proliferated not only as sites of deprivation but also as sites of vulnerable corporeality, where people unable to draw on individual resources to respond to hunger congregate in search of social and material support. As growing numbers of people in Britain find themselves in this situation, the vulnerable corporeality of the hungry body becomes more pervasive and more visible. Hunger as a lived experience is laid bare in ever-longer food bank queues and also through the physiological, emotional and social consequences graphically described in personal blogs and in the testimonies of food bank users.

Blogger Jack Monroe, for example, has recounted giving what little food she had to her child and going to bed hungry with a pot of ginger tea to “ease the stomach pains”; saying to her curious child “I’m not hungry,” while “the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar” (Monroe, Hunger Hurts). She has also written that her recourse to food banks started with the “terrifying and humiliating” admission that “you cannot afford to feed your child” and has expressed her reluctance to solicit the help of the food bank because “it feels like begging” (Monroe, Austerity Works?). Such blog accounts are corroborated in reports by food bank operators and a parliamentary enquiry which told stories of mothers not eating for days after being sanctioned under the benefit system; of children going to school hungry; of people leaving hospital after a major operation unable to feed themselves since their benefits have been cut; of the elderly having to make “hard choices” between “heat or eat” each winter; and of mixed feelings of relief and shame at receiving food bank parcels (All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry; Beattie; Cooper and Dumpleton; Caplan; Perry et al.). That is, two different visibilities have emerged: the shame of standing or being seen to stand in the food bank queue, and blogs that describe these feelings and the lived experience of hunger – both are vulnerable and visible, but in different ways and in different spaces: the physical or material, and the virtual.

The response of doctors to the growing evidence of crisis was to warn that there were “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action,” that progress made against food poverty since the 1960s was being eroded (Ashton et al. 1631), and that the “robust last line of defence against hunger” provided by the welfare state was failing (Loopstra et al. n.p). Medical professionals thus sought to conscript the rhetorical resources of their professional credibility to highlight that this is a politically created public health crisis.

This is not to suggest that acute hunger was absent for 50 years of the welfare state, but that with the closure of the last workhouses, the end of hunger marches, and the shutting of the soup kitchens by the 1950s, it became less visible. Over the past decade, hunger has become more visible in images of growing queues at food banks and stacked tins ready to be handed out by volunteers (Glaze; Gore) on production of a voucher provided on referral by professionals. Doctors, social workers or teachers are therefore tasked with discerning cases of need, deciding whose need is “genuine” and so worthy of food relief (see Downing et al.). The voucher system is regulated by professionals so that food banks are open only to those with a public identity constructed around bodily crisis. The sense of something as intimate as hunger being defined by others contrasts to making visible one’s own hunger through blogging. It suggests again how bodies become caught up in wider political struggles where not only is shame a co-construction of internal inadequacies and external judgements, but so too is hunger, albeit in different yet interweaving ways. New boundaries are being established between those who are deprived and those who are not, and also between those whose bodies are in short-term acute crisis, and those whose bodies are in long-term and chronic crisis, which is not deemed to be an emergency. It is in this context that food banks have also become sites of demarcation, shame, and contestation.

Public debates about growing food bank queues highlight the ambiguous nature of societal responses to the vulnerability of hunger made visible. Government ministers have intensified internal shame in attributing growing food bank queues to individual inadequacies, failure to manage household budgets (Gove), and profligate spending on luxury (Johnston; Shipton). Civil society organisations have contested this account of hunger, turning shame away from the individual and onto the government. Austerity reforms have, they argue, “torn apart” the “basic safety net” of social responses to corporeal vulnerability put in place after the Second World War and intended to ensure that no-one was left hungry or destitute (Bingham), their vulnerability unattended to. Furthermore, the benefit sanctions impose punitive measures that leave families with “nothing” to live on for weeks. Hungry citizens, confronted with their own corporeal vulnerability and little choice but to seek relief from food banks, echo the Dickensian era of the workhouse (Cooper and Dumpleton) and indict the UK government response to poverty. Church leaders have called on the government to exercise “moral duty” and recognise the “acute moral imperative to act” to alleviate the suffering of the hungry body (Beattie; see also Bingham), and respond ethically to corporeal vulnerability with social policies that address unmet need for food. However, future cuts to welfare benefits mean the need for relief is likely to intensify.


The aim of this paper was to explore the vulnerable corporeality of hunger through the lens of food banks, the twenty-first-century manifestations of charitable responses to acute need. Food banks have emerged in a gap between the renewal of a neo-liberal agenda of prudent government spending and the retreat of the welfare state, between struggles over resurgent ideas about individual responsibility and deep disquiet about wider social responsibilities. Food banks as sites of deprivation, in drawing attention to a newly vulnerable corporeality, potentially pose a threat to the moral credibility of the neo-liberal state. The threat is highlighted when the taboo of a hungry body, previously hidden because of shame, is being challenged by two new visibilities, that of food bank queues and the commentaries on blogs about the shame of having to queue for food.


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food poverty, hunger, food banks

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