In the Last Place You Look

Food insecurity in wealthy countries

Anna is 51, has a young daughter, and was a successful entrepreneur. When Anna developed anxiety and depression, she stopped working. Money ran low and food became scarce.  

“Our eating is far more inconsistent with the way that we have to buy food now,” Anna said. “So we’ll maybe have a healthy week but then we’ll maybe have quite a poor nutrition week.”

Anna started to buy more packaged food and less fresh. “I’m not unintelligent,” Anna said. “I know what I need to keep my levels going, I know what I need for my diet but it’s hard to keep that going when you’re left with eating just bread with maybe a chocolate spread on it cos that’s all you’ve got left for that day.”

Anna lives in the UK.

In the long aftermath of the Great Recession, millions across the United Kingdom and the United States became poor and food insecure. A food insecure house has not enough food or little variety of food, or the only options are unhealthful food. As a result, people choose not to eat, or they eat less often than they would like, or they often eat that unhealthful food.

In the world’s richest nations, how do folks become food insecure, and how do they reconcile being food insecure with living in one of the world’s richest nations?


In bad economic times and good, the hungry can turn to foodbanks. Foodbanks are charitable organizations that collect food. Some distribute that food directly to those in need. Some provide food for other organizations to give away. In the UK, there are “emergency” foodbanks where, during a crisis and for a limited time, one can get and redeem a voucher for food.

To understand who uses foodbanks and why, in 2013, social scientist K. A. Garthwaite and colleagues researched a foodbank operated by the Trussell Trust, a respected charitable organization. The foodbank was located in Stockton-on-Tees, a town of 85,000 that lay in the northeast of England. Nearly a million people in the UK got emergency food from the Trussell Trust in 2013 alone.  

The social scientists volunteered at the foodbank: they prepared and distributed food parcels; they administered food vouchers. All the while, they wrote down numerous observations and countless conversations and interviewed several dozen foodbank visitors and fellow volunteers.

The UK social scientists found that many who visited the foodbank had health problems. Prior to their foodbank visit, some had been traumatized by violence and most had lost a job. Some lost their job because of mental health issues and others suffered from these issues afterwards. Some had physical ailments that led to mental ailments. They all suffered from food insecurity.

Much of the food that the foodbank provides – “cereal, tinned soup, tinned vegetables, pasta sauce, long life milk, tea or coffee, pasta, rice, juice, and other basic staple items” (39) – has wheat and dairy. They are filling, but for folks with wheat or lactose allergies, the choices are costly. The foodbank visitors supplement, when they can, with the cheapest foods from local supermarkets.

Naomi is one such foodbank visitor: 36, with a series of physical and mental health problems – Irritable Bowel Syndrome and anxiety among them – and had struggled with heroin addiction. She receives welfare. When there’s money, there is not a lot of it, and she uses it to buy some food and make hard choices.

“Well we normally what we do in the first week, we fill up our cupboards like with tinned stuff, noodles, things like that, fill up the freezer with like chicken, there’s always meat, vegetables, chips, stuff like that… “ Naomi said. Soon, the money runs out.  “When you get to the end of the week you see it all go,” Naomi continued. “All the fresh stuff’s gone and it’s really hard to keep some money in your account for the following week.”

The combination of food insecurity, food allergies, and physical health problems make it hard to find food that will agree with them. Naomi, for example, is allergic to white wheat. “I can’t eat anything fried, spicy and a lot of cheap food is the type of food that I can’t eat,” Naomi said, “but when you’re hungry you’ll eat anything and I suffer the consequences afterwards.”

Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

What Hunger Is

Across the pond, in the United States, Mohan Jyoti Dutta and colleagues were also concerned about foodbank visitors. To hear their voices, in 2012, the US researchers volunteered in food pantries (a type of foodbank) and similar organizations in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Tippecanoe is home to the city of Lafayette, to Perdue University, and to 170,000+ souls. They interviewed 18 of them.

The food pantry visitors said that hunger is deep – it affects the body and it makes it difficult to think.

Chris visited the food pantry. He has a job, but not enough to eat regularly and also pay for the roof over his head. He told the social scientists what hunger is. “There was a time when I was so hungry that I could not even think straight because I’m trying to find my next meal,” Chris said. “I want to get something in my stomach and the hunger pains be so painful.”

The food insecure of Tippecanoe finds it difficult to manage the welfare bureaucracy. For instance, there are troubles and delays in getting an identity card, and in waiting for the process of getting that card, the person goes hungry. Like others, Chris tries to get welfare but is stymied by the regulations. “I don’t know what all things I need to bring to the office,” Chris said. “They keep telling me I need this and I need that. I have gone so many times and then turned around.”

Downhill, with an Audience

Food insecurity is tied to poverty and unemployment. It happens to those who suddenly find themselves living in the margins of society, for long or short periods of time.  It can happen to anyone.

When bad things snowball, life can go downhill, fast. One gets an illness or a divorce, loses a job, and money becomes scarce. Healthful food is difficult to afford. Extended family say that they got troubles of their own.

Problems that could happen to anyone become a parlous cascade of personal troubles connected to public policy.

As with the UK’s food insecure, American food pantry visitors can feel shame and humiliation. The shame is born of a culture that prioritizes money over kinship and demonizes a plea for help – it is a fear of a financial plight made public.  “You can’t understand,” said a man. “My younger brother is an accountant and he is very comfortable, and my other brother the same, and here I am the first struggling to get food from the pantries.”

They find themselves in one of the richest countries in the world, falling on hard times and struggling to get up.

They find themselves in the last place they would look.

“I know how I looked at those people,” a woman said. “The ones who stood in line [in tears] at the food pantry. I felt pity for them. I wondered, how is it that they can’t work to meet their basic needs. I guess, I never thought that this could happen to me. If I worked hard enough, I would be able to pay for the basics.”

“And here I am.” 



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on K. A. Garthwaite, P. J. Collins, and Clare Bambra. “Food for thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank,” published in Social Science & Medicine 132 (2015): 38-44; and Mohan Jyoti Dutta, LaReina Hingson, Agaptus Anaele, Soumitro Sen, and Kyle Jones. “Narratives of food insecurity in Tippecanoe County, Indiana: Economic constraints in local meanings of hunger,” published in Health Communication 31, no. 6 (2016): 647-658.

“Our eating is far more inconsistent…” UK, p. 41

“I’m not unintelligent…” p. 42

In the UK emergency system, people can get a “red voucher” that allows for three visits within a time of “crisis.”

Some interviews were at the foodbank and others at the respondent’s home. (pp. 39 – 40)

Prior to their foodbank visit… p. 41

“Well we normally what we do…” p. 41

“I can’t eat anything fried…” p. 42

The US social scientists named their project the “Voices of Hunger.”

“There was a time…” US, p. 655

“I don’t know what all things I need…” p. 653

“You can’t understand…” p. 654

“I know how I looked at those people…” p. 654

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