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Does every can help? How supermarket food collections are making poverty into a spectacle

Guest blog by Dr Chris Möller

Between 21 and 23 November, Tesco are hosting their annual Neighbourhood Food Collection in partnership with FareShare and the Trussell Trust across their stores in the UK. When some MPs used the events as photo opportunities last December, this caused national outrage on social media and was widely reported at the time. Earlier that year, a new partnership worth £20m between FareShare, the Trussell Trust and Asda also received widespread criticism and IFAN rightly highlighted the “company’s own record on low pay” at the time. More recently, Asda workers have staged protests across the UK in response to being forced to sign punitive ‘flexible’ contracts despite the Walmart-owned company making record profits.

Having studied Neighbourhood Food Collections between 2015-2017 for my PhD research, I believe there are further fundamental issues with the collection events worthy of scrutiny and critical debate. My analysis of the collections included around 2000 pictures shared by volunteers and donors on social media under the #everycanhelps hashtag in addition to documents, videos and some interviews with food bank managers. I was particularly interested in how poverty is made visible at the events and how volunteers interacted with each other and the public. I used discourse analysis as a critical approach to explore how poverty is being constructed and made visible at the events, what solutions are being presented or remain invisible and who may be excluded and silenced in the process. In this blog, I will reflect critically on some of the major discourses at work at the collections and how they are making poverty relief into a spectacle of consumption with considerable benefits to businesses.

The neighbourhood discourse

Across materials used at the Tesco collection events, there are frequent references to “local people in need”, “UK hunger” and helping the “local community”. Large banners and posters are placed at the collection points near the store entrance to get shoppers’ attention as they are greeted by volunteers wearing colourful tabards. Shoppers are then handed leaflets and called upon to “help feed the neighbourhood” by buying extra items and donating them as they leave the store. The dominant neighbourhood discourse makes every little contribution, no matter how symbolic, into an act of kindness said to build stronger communities where the needy are fed and cared for. The emphasis on “feeding” also means that any references to poverty, structural causes and lack of money or other resources remain completely invisible.

There are clear links between the localism at work here and the ways neoliberal policies typically relocate responsibility and transformative potential from the collective/political to the individual/private sphere. Following the ‘Big Society’ agenda under David Cameron and even earlier developments in ‘Third Way’ politics, community has been discovered not just as a site but a means for governing social problems (Rose, 2001). Combined with the subtle nationalism addressing “UK hunger” and promise to address local as opposed to distant needs, the neighbourhood discourse is extremely effective at mobilising charitable responses and active participation. Through it, food charity creates an imagined community of givers offering seemingly more effective, local solutions without having to speak of the causes of poverty. As Jan Poppendieck (1998, p. 198) has written over 20 years ago about food drives in the US, donations offer a seductive antidote to consumption and act as a moral release valve for “survivor guilt for the affluent”. Donating a pre-selected item from a shopping list is extremely convenient and makes us feel better about ourselves while absolving us from any responsibility for political action and social change.

Food charity as spectacle

Volunteers go to great lengths to create a festive atmosphere around the collection points, often helped by seasonal decorations, colourful bunting and sometimes even offering free cake. Some volunteers can be seen wearing costumes of popular Disney characters and handing out sweets to children as they enter the store. In my analysis, I found the use of children in the collections particularly concerning. When two young Brownie girls were interviewed about their participation in a promotional video, they said they were “trying to help people who haven't got any food” for Christmas. As heart-warming as these moments may be, they also demonstrate how charity discourses place limits on our understanding of social problems: These children are growing up in an environment where “feeding the needy” becomes a normal response without learning about the nature and causes of poverty, or possible alternatives to charity.

“Have fun and help change lives this Christmas by giving just a few hours of your time to help at a food collection point at your local Tesco store. You don’t need to have any experience, just a desire to help people in your local community.” (The Trussell Trust)

When #everycanhelps, more is definitely better and there was no shortage of food deemed suitable for donations near the collection points. Predominantly comprised of absurdly high stacks and piles of Tesco’s own brand “store-cupboard essentials”, items include heavily processed canned food in addition to seasonal treats. Following true market logic, success is measured by outputs in kilograms of donated food with complete disregard for actual outcomes for those in poverty, the long-term (health) impact or sustainability. Poverty relief offers substantial benefits and new opportunities for businesses, as Pat Caplan has highlighted in her blog post. To be successful, corporate food charity must adopt market principles and strive to maximise profits and visibility. Nicola Livingstone (2013, p. 351) has further pointed out how charity is a displacement of social struggles that maintains consumption and reproduces capitalist structures as we “consume the mediated form of cultural spectacle presented to us”. Increasingly, food charity becomes something to be consumed and participation in its spectacle promises positive emotions, fun experiences and community membership as useful, ethical and responsible consumer.

Guy Debord (2005, p. 21) described the spectacle as the “stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life” and replacing direct with purely mediated experiences. Since “commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity” and we are compelled to buy more so we can assure ourselves of our own normality as able consumers. For as long as we can afford to buy extra items, the poor is always the Other, external to us and only mediated through images and the work of volunteers. Consumption itself becomes cause for celebration, completely detached from chains of production, invested labour, environmental costs or the material needs of those excluded from places of consumption. Harsh realities and causes of poverty, deprivation and their emotional effects are rendered invisible while keeping the poor at a comfortable distance. Recipients remain marginalised to appear only in printed materials to testify to the life-saving effects of donations with a smile, while volunteers act as proxies to collect and administer food gifts on their behalf. Very much contradicting the neighbourhood discourse, shopping for the absent poor creates new divisions and separates the generous givers and community architects from the absent but always grateful and passive recipients.

Conclusion: Normalising charity or resisting the spectacle?

In their celebration of community and symbolic acts of charity, supermarket food collections problematise a lack of food but not income, rising living costs or unequal distribution of wealth. In the spectacle of food charity, social problems are made into marketable opportunities and positive experiences to be consumed. Poverty relief becomes a commodity when vast displays of donated food serve to reassure us that hunger can be tackled and the poor are taken care of by generous givers and kind volunteers. While charity is made more visible across spectacular events and social media, this changes how we get to see, experience, and fight poverty. In Big Hunger, Andy Fisher (2017) has shown how useful food charity can be to businesses in corporate partnerships and cause marketing campaigns: From seasonal promotions of Coca-Cola and Tesco donating £1 for every Christmas turkey sold, these campaigns have now been taken up by the two biggest food charities in the UK. With Tesco also ‘topping up’ all food donations at an arbitrary rate of £1.68/KG, the supermarket giant’s financial support made up almost £1m of the Trussell Trust’s annual revenue in 2017-2018.

Without such lucrative contracts as a stable source of funding, independent food banks are in a very different position but also much better placed to maintain a critical perspective and to call out the on-going institutionalisation of corporate food aid. In my interviews, some food bank managers were deeply conflicted about these close links with supermarkets, with one describing the events as a “double-edged sword” that could further normalise, rather than scandalise, the existence of food banks. I was very encouraged by similar debates at the recent IFAN AGM in London where members were deeply concerned about these partnerships and the continued disregard for structural inequalities and questions of social justice. Building on these debates, we need to be asking who benefits from the spectacle of food charity, who is excluded and what the reliance on corporate networks and supermarket donations means for any serious plans to end food banking in the UK.

References

Debord, G. (2005). The society of the spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

Fisher, A. (2017). Big hunger: The unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups. Food, health, and the environment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Livingstone, N. (2013). ‘Capital’s charity’. Capital & Class, 37(3), 347–353.

Poppendieck, J. (1998). Sweet charity?: Emergency food and the end of entitlement. New York, N.Y.: Viking.

Rose, N. (2001). Community, Citizenship and the Third Way. In D. Meredyth & J. Minson (Eds.), Citizenship and cultural policy. London, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Dr Chris Möller is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Critical Psychology at Aberystwyth University.

Email: chm76@aber.ac.uk

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