Experiences of Food Poverty: Results and Discussion by Samuel Lindskog
Eight out of nine participants interviewed were unable to “acquire or eat an adequate quality of sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways” (Dowler and O’Connor 2011:44) or were worried about not being able to do so. All participants attributed this to growing gap between incomes and expenses(BHFP 2012b: 3-4: Family Action:3; Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam 2013:3; Dowler 1998:59), with other factors further compounding the problem.
This chapter will first deal briefly with securing an income, some techniques for mitigating and coping with food poverty (Dowler 1998:59; Holmes 2007:201; Caraher, Lang and Carr-Hill 1998:195) and with getting help (Hamelin 2002; Lambie-Mumford 2013a:85) to fill the gap left between the two.
The second part of the chapter deals with the affective experience of food poverty: the participants feel anger, worry, desperation, exasperation, pride and shame, to mention a few emotions. They also report feeling ‘okay’; they feel that as long as they are coping that is enough. This attitude is often the result of the use of emotional coping techniques.
Firstly, participants normalise what would be ‘unacceptable’ (Hamelin 2002:130) to a food secure person. Secondly, humour is an emotional technique employed to cope (Wicks et al 2006:923). A third emotional coping technique is to give back or make a contribution to the community, and can often allow people to reclaim some dignity they have lost to insecurity.
Securing An Income
There’s no job security. That’s the biggest problem…But a job’s a job at the minute… We take whatever hours we can”
Apart from three participants, two of whom were disabled and one who was retired, all participants expressed a desire to work. One participant was concerned with the cost associated with working (Hirsch 2013), such as paying for transport and childcare. She felt that in combination with a lack of jobs or hours available and low wages (Dowler and O’Connor 2011:47), she would be even less food secure while working.
Benefits and welfare
“Pretty much since I… I’ve been on JSA, ‘cause the thing is I have to ration…”
For six out of seven of the participants, benefits was the main income source. With one exception, the benefit was too low (Family Action n.d:5) to cover all living costs without having to resort to food banks or soup kitchens. It was often expressed that the criteria that had to be fulfilled to receive the benefit were high or complex and participants felt insecure due to the high amount of administrative errors and delays (Trussell Trust 2013), which drove them to the food bank or put them in debt. The bedroom tax in particular is felt to be very unfairly exacted. Despite this, one participant said that the benefits claimant status unlocked a range of support services not available to her as a person in employment. Participants also expressed concern about benefit fraud and unfair distribution of welfare.
There is a deep contradiction between participants’ distrust for others in their own situation, while simultaneously experiencing the same distrust from service gatekeepers. Participants’ concerns about benefit fraud and the lack of responsibility of some services users have often been a topic in the same interview as an admittance of feeling judged or even humiliated by referrals or evaluations of eligibility. This may be explained by the apolitical ‘hierarchy of credibility’ around poverty issues.
Mitigating and Coping Techniques
In order to make up for very low incomes, participants employed a number of mitigation and coping techniques (Dowler 1998:59; Holmes 2007:201; Holmes 2007; Caraher, Lang and Carr-Hill:195; Maxwell 2006).
“Minus 240 pounds… that’s how much I’m spending more than what I get in. And that’s on just bills and things like that. There’s not… I’m not going out and spending it in the pub on a drink.”
Five participants spoke about budgeting and the difficulty of making ends meet (BHFP 2012b: 3-4; Dowler 1998:59). Three of those felt confident in their budgeting skills (Wicks et al), while another two struggled and appreciated help in the form of financial advice(BHFP 2012b:7). All participants spoke of the difficulty with managing regular, non-elastic expenses (Dowler 1998:62). This included bills, rent, maintaining debts and buying clothes for growing children. Any one-off costs on top of that, such as prescription medication, caused major problems. The relative elasticity of the food budget (Family Action n.d:14; Dowler 1998:62) in relation to these other expenses often meant that it was the first one to get squeezed.
Shopping for food
“The food prices are a big issue. Even bread keeps going up and that’s a staple.”
The corner shop is expensive, but the cheaper supermarket is hard to get to – this was a common problem (BHFP 2012b:4; Faculty of Public Health 2005; Hamelin, Beaudry and Habicht). There was a high degree of awareness about differences in food prices and where to get the cheapest food (Caraher, Lang and Carr-Hill 1998l:195). Shopping around was common but also hard work. Only one participant had a car, the others walked or used the bus to get to the shops (Caraher, Lang and Carr-Hill:196). Buses in Brighton were considered to be well-connected but unreliable and expensive. All participants felt that low-cost food was the priority in terms of alleviating food poverty, since prices were continuously increasing (Family Action n.d:5; BHFP 2012b:4; Speight et al 2007:185).
“I generally eat… smaller portions like I think beans on toast is actually quite good so I generally have that a bit more …”
Overall people had an excellent awareness of what constituted a healthy diet (Wicks et al 2006:923; Dowler 1998:61), but felt that it was hard to follow one, given their limited income (Tina Brownbill 2013). ‘Beans on toast’ was the most commonly mentioned meal, indicating the overall lack of fresh foods (Hamelin 2002:123) and low nutritional value (ibid) of the food they were able to afford. The diet was often monotonous (Hamelin 2002:122,129), and participants often felt unable to get food they found tasty. Five out of six reported having skipped or reduced the size of their meals (Holmes 2007:204; Tina Brownbill 2013), one of them anticipating that he soon would not be able to eat for an entire day. More than half of the participants showed great concern for food waste, both in the household and in retail. Ingredients were re-used for several meals, demonstrating a great deal of skill in cooking (Caraher, Lang and Carr-Hill 1998:197; Faculty of Public Health 2005; BHFP 2012b:4; BHFP 2013a; Dowler and O’Connor 2011:44). Two people reported ‘buffering’ (Hamelin 2002:127; Dowler 1998:59; Holmes 2007:201), eating less in order to allow someone else, children or a pet, to eat more or better.
When Coping Fails: Getting help
“I had a referral from the health visitor for them – they said we don’t meet the criteria because we’re a working family.”
Even after employing these techniques for mitigation and coping, all but one participant experienced a significant income shortfall (Dowler 1998:63; Speight et al 2007:185). Thisoften resulted in seeking help outside of the home, in the form of food banks, soup kitchens or by drawing on social networks. Help from social networks included child care, or family coming together to cover expenses. Many participants struggled with a lack of information about available services, often due to digital exclusion. Referrals and eligibility criteria posed further barriers, often resulting in the service user feeling judged or scrutinised (Hamelin 2002:123). Knowing a user of the service lowered the social threshold, making it easier to start using the service. Using a service for help also had many affective implications, which will be covered in depth in the next section.
My results strongly challenge the perception that all people in food poverty lack budgeting and cooking skills. Moreover, they confirm Wicks et al (2006) in their contention that people in food poverty have sufficient knowledge of nutrition and eating well. The findings on income, welfare, coping techniques and using service all correlate to previous studies on food poverty mentioned in the literature review.
Affective Experiences Food Poverty
“Food and mood”, as one participant put it, are intimately connected (Hamelin 2002; Carter et al 2011:1468; Wicks et al 2006). This section focuses on that and other affective experiences of food poverty. Food poverty resulted in a range of affective experiences. It permeates every part of your life: from your daily activities to your your attitudes, feelings and moods. Food poverty causes a lack of security, evokes feelings of shame and exasperation and causes people to worry about you. Despite this, many also expressed that they were okay, that they could cope and someone else was worse off. This normalisation was one emotional coping strategy. The second was to use humour. Many participants experienced a loss of dignity when forced “to go against [their] held norms and values” (Hamelin 2002:127). They could reclaim some of that dignity by giving back in some form, the third emotional coping technique described here.
“I used to support a lot of charities and, “Mom-” [my daughter] says, “you’re the charity now, not them”
The transition from independence to having to rely on a service such as a food bank was a difficult one. “My mom told me about [the food bank]. Took quite a few weeks to persuade me to go, but…” It often required participants to ‘swallow their pride’ (Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam 2013): “It’s more pride than anything, because the way my mom and dad have always brought us up is- you work hard and you be proud of yourself… To actually start going to it, it was like do we really need this?”; “I found it very difficult at first to ask for help because I’m from up North and I’ve always been taught you sort your own problems out”.
Going to the food bank means admitting your desperation: “the thought of going to a food bank was a bit ‘no, no, no, I’m not that desperate, I’m not that desperate’”. Using a food bank entails shame (Hamelin 2002:123,125): “Not being able to afford to eat makes me feel ashamed sometimes. And I just want to hide away.”
The emotions of becoming a ‘charity case’, ties in with previously identified themes of shame and loss of dignity (Hamelin et al 2002; Wicks et al 2006), but is unique in identifying this as a process. It is a difficult process and many resist it as long as they possibly can.
The food bank satisfies more than physical needs, and participants often found support “Sometimes I don’t get anything when I go down there (to the food bank)… I just go down there to socialize” (Wicks et al 2006:923).
People are grateful for the food bank: “I’m just very grateful that [the food bank] will let me go in.”; “If it weren’t for [my food bank] I don’t think I’d be here now” and feel anger when the food bank is dismissed: “I’m angry that they are saying things like ‘people are going there because it’s free’. Oh yeah, they are going because it’s free – because they need it!” (Wicks et al 2006:922).
Stigma has been mentioned (Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam 2013:6) as a barrier to food bank use, but the feeling is contradictory. When asked, one participant said “Who cares? Who knows?” but was simultaneously worried about a community member seeing her taking bread from a dumpster outside a shop.
Lack of security and control over the life situation is one of the most common complaints (Hamelin 2002:124). Security seems inconceivable: “People say, oh, we’re gonna wait until we’re financially ready to have kids, but you can never be financially ready to have kids. Never.” Food prices increasing is causing insecurity: “I can actually see the stage where if the food prices keep going up, I mean, there’ll be days when I don’t have anything to eat at all.” Sometimes, the lack of security takes its expression in not feeling entitled: “You’ve got no right to nothings to nothing as a human being, it could all collapse tomorrow, so what, what do we have then, we would all scrabble round like rats and cats and dogs”.
Budgeting feels overwhelming (Hamelin 2002:127): “Just, just trying to cover all the bills and everything else plus sorting the debts out – it is such hard… you can’t do everything and…” Every penny counts and weighs heavily on the mind: “I can get down to the supermarket and four pints of milk for a pound. And the corner shop it’s one pound fifty. It might not sound a lot but 50 pence can go to getting some food or something like that.
Worry about how to make ends meet is common (Holmes 2007:203): “We’re lucky if we get 300 (pounds per month)… By the time the rent and everything else has gone out, that’s nothing. Barely anything left at all.”; “Juggling the whole thing… making sure what I get through is… it’s not easy sometimes” Sometimes others worry for you: “My daughters, they worry about me.”
The feeling grows beyond the personal situation and becomes anger and disillusionment: “I think it’s disgusting that people are actually going hungry these days. In this country. When we’re the sixth wealthiest country in the world. And people struggling to buy food? It’s ridiculous. It’s disgusting.” Participants feel apathetic about change: “They know everything, but no action is being taken” Or feel like the only way for change to happen is an overhaul of the system: “I think in order for everything to change, the Council, the government needs change basically. Which is why I’m not a big fan of voting really”. The government is felt to be too disconnected from their reality: “I can’t see where we’re all in this together when they’re swanning about in Rolls Royce and things like that.”
Emotional Coping Using Normalisation
Many participants initially expressed that they were okay and only revealed the fact that they were struggling after some while. People made normalising statements (Hamelin 2002:230) about their situation in order to feel less disempowered. One man said he did not need insulation “actually coz I’ve got an electric blanket” and would appreciate vouchers for “non-essential items like electricity”. In telling me how she had learnt resourcefulness, one woman compared her situation to growing up during the war “You know, so we had something to eat, we didn’t starve…” There is always someone worse off than you: “I mean, I’m lucky ‘cause I can ask for help from the church.. but not everybody goes to church.”; “I’ve given [my neighbour], you know, half of [the food parcel]… Because she … is worse off than I am.” One participant claimed that the situation wasn’t extreme enough to be called food poverty: “Where’s the food poverty? ‘Cause if there is food poverty, people would be eating [turnips] raw, mate. There’d be fights over them.” The same participant did not feel it was abnormal to collect other shoppers’ receipts in order to cash in unused ‘points’ for reward, what Hamelin et al call ‘distorted strategies for food acquisition’ (Hamelin 2002:125): “I used to find on the floor, where people had just thrown their receipts away and I used to go and claim the points. I used to get 15 or 20 pounds worth of food every 3 months for free.”
Emotional Coping Using Humour
“[Benefits] only go up once a year and last year they went up naught point three percent. It’s peanuts. In fact, you couldn’t even buy a packet of peanuts. (Laughs)”
Another common technique for coping emotionally was using humour (Wicks et al 2006:923): “I’ve reduced the size of my meals. Partly because of [not having the money] and partly because I personally think I need to lose weight (laughs).” In describing someone else’s food poverty resulting from time constraints one participant said “(the gossip monger) said that Alex was… on the game. A prostitute. Yeah. And Alex’s not. She hasn’t got time. (Laughs)”.
The Importance of Giving Back
Going against held norms and values, such as having to accept charity, can mean a loss in dignity (Hamlin et al 2002:127), and ‘giving back’ is one way to reclaim it. One man was living on the charity of his neighbour and wanted to repay her somehow: “I’d give her 50… for the facilities and that… she started giving me that back and I said ‘no no I mean no you gotta- you’ve got to have that’”. One gave to charity: “There’s a couple (of charities) I do support. Like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” and brought baked goods for the food bank to sell in their cafe “I got loads of bananas last week when I went down (to the food bank), so I made two banana cakes. One for me and one for them down there.” Another from the same food bank does the same: “Yeah, I make some cakes for them. Because… they sell them and it helps them pay their rent and things like that. Quite happily do that.” Giving to those that are ‘worse off’ can also be a way to regain self-esteem “There was two homeless people sitting down the road, so mum went out and… we took them down and gave them to the homeless people. And… you could just see their faces light up.”
Other qualitative studies have explored both feelings and social implications of food poverty, but none have, to my knowledge, highlighted any of the positive experiences. While there is a great deal of distress (Hamelin et al, Carter et al) people also feel okay. Participants express gratitude when able to access a food bank and feel like even though life in food poverty is a struggle, there is someone else who is worse off.
The element of wanting to give back is also a theme missing from previous literature. It would be a mistake to reduce participant’s willingness to give back to a strategic decision for regaining dignity – it also an expression of goodwill. Participants have often showed great concern for the wellbeing of their community and come up with pragmatic ideas for how this could be improved. Food waste engages people and when children, the elderly and disabled people suffer there is a real sense of indignation. These positive aspects of food poverty do not mean that food poverty overall is a positive experience or that it is not severe enough to require urgent attention. What the findings do reflect is resilience and resourcefulness despite adversity.
The experiences of food poverty in Brighton and Hove are diverse and complex. There are elements of this experience that are unique to the city, such as high rents and the geographic isolation of estates like Bevendean. The affective experience of food poverty, however, not only confirms what has been said in qualitative studies from other industrialised countries (Hamelin et al 2002; Wicks et al 2006), but echoes the experience of people from all over the globe. In a study commissioned by the world bank, 20000 people in poverty from 23 countries were consulted on the experience of being poor. The authors describe the most common theme across all findings was powerlessness (Narayan et al 2000:1), which in Brighton and Hove takes its expression in insecurity, disillusionment and loss of dignity. Participants mitigate for this disempowerment by employing a number of emotional coping techniques.
The qualitative approaches taken for this research has captured the relative nature of the experiences. Food poverty is relative to a largely food secure British population, it is relative to the lower food poverty rates in the country two years ago and relative to participants’ personal experiences of previously being food secure. It is also this relativity which allows people in poverty to normalise their situation, as there is always someone ‘worse off’.
It is also the relative nature of food poverty that makes it so important to acknowledge the affective, lived experience rather than focusing on absolute measures. When we take such a perspective, we are able to see the commonality of experience as well as its complex variations. While the participants have much of the affective experience in common, there also important individual variations, such as whether the participant experienced stigma or not.
The most important finding has been the understanding that people in food poverty have great deal of knowledge and skill, contributing to a body of literature that has been divided on whether food poverty is to blame on the individual or structures that the individual find themselves within. It is crucial for these structures to be recognised, so that organisations can steer away from solutions such as nutritional education, which are unlikely to have a significant impact on reducing rates if food poverty. Rather, a human rights approach is needed to guide effective intervention.
My research makes a unique contribution in terms of a qualitative understanding of how food poverty is experienced in the UK and locally, but also confirms many findings of qualitative studies from other industrialised countries. The barriers to food security and coping techniques identified by quantitative studies have also been expressed in this project.
These findings are not representative of every experience of food poverty in Brighton and Hove, but good progress has been made toward gaining such an understanding.In going forward to find solutions to food poverty, both locally and nationally, professionals will need to “not dominate and lecture [but] facilitate, sit down, listen and learn…” (Chambers 1997:103). Where my study fell short of a participatory approach, further studies will need to compensate in order to produce findings that both express people’s own realities and create outcomes which are empowering.
Additional research of this kind is needed to find effective solutions to a phenomenon that is growing and becoming increasingly severe both locally and nationally.