As a social anthropologist, Pat Caplan was more used to working on the impact of food insecurity in Tanzania and South India – but as she saw more stories in the press about hunger in the UK, she decided to use her methods to find out what is driving hunger here. She has recently launched a new blog on food poverty and insecurity, and writes about why she’s launched the blog here.

I’m a social anthropologist who has spent most of my by-now long career working in East Africa (Tanzania) and South India. One of the topics I’ve specialised in has been the anthropology of food, the study of which is a good way of exploring and understanding society: culture, social relations and power. When I started working on food security on Mafia Island (my main research site in Tanzania) in the 1980s, this was a relatively underdeveloped sub-topic of my discipline and was largely subsumed under ‘development’. I wanted to know why, in spite of apparent progress in certain areas, food insecurity was increasing for many people. In my teaching I also explored the reasons why India, already a major industrial power, had more malnourished people than the whole of Africa.

In 2014, I began to read reports about food poverty and food banks in the UK, and was outraged. How could this happen here, one of the richest countries in the world and with claims to being a welfare state? Born during World War Two, I had grown up with the expectation that the state should ensure that its citizens were cared for, particularly if they could not care for themselves. I began to survey the literature on food and other forms of poverty, finding that many reports had already been produced by voluntary organisations working in the area, but that these had had little effect on government policy.

I decided to conduct anthropological research in two contrasting areas which I knew well: the London borough of Barnet, where I have lived for over 40 years, and the county of Pembrokeshire in West Wales, where in the 1990s I had conducted research on food and health, and later on the social effects of animal diseases. In each area, I sought to identify organisations which were working with the food poor, mainly food banks but also community cafes and soup kitchens. I became an (occasional) volunteer in some, carried out observations and interviews with volunteers, clients, managers, trustees and users, and distributed questionnaires. I also kept a close eye on the media and its very mixed reporting of food poverty.

In the course of this research, I had to learn more than I had previously known about government policy, benefits, employment (and unemployment), housing and a number of other issues, since food poverty does not exist in a vacuum but is the result of many other factors.

This summer I’ve been back in west Wales updating myself, and have been revisiting four food banks and talking to their managers and some of the volunteers and clients. Here’s a snapshot of some of the issues clients raised in my visits to each place during a single week; the list is by no means comprehensive:

  • Benefit problems: changes in benefit entitlement resulting in delays in payments, capping of benefits, moving people onto Universal Credit, moving people from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Allowance (PIP)
  • Low wages (including a supermarket worker) and zero-hours contracts which make it difficult to hold down more than one part-time job because of uncertainty about shifts
  • Unemployment, a major problem in west Wales where much employment is seasonal (agriculture, tourism)
  • Mental health problems
  • Sudden emergency: client’s car (a necessity in a rural area with no public transport) failed its MOT and needed extensive repairs, plus smartphone broke.
  • Being a refugee
  • Being lonely – the food bank is a place to come and have a cup of tea and chat with a volunteer
  • Problems with housing
  • Needing but not getting a crisis loan

During the three years I’ve been doing my research, many more academics have been researching and writing about this topic, and third sector organisations have also continued to press the issue strongly. There’s no lack of information, just a lack of willingness on the part of the government to change some of its policies and priorities. Meanwhile, the number of food banks continues to grow, and so does the number of users.