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Food aid in a multi-faith context

Posted on 13 February 2017

Some faith groups are at risk of being unintentionally excluded from food aid provision, a study by the University of York has found.

Image of food bank shelves

The research, conducted in Bradford, identified an extensive network of food aid providers including food banks, soup kitchens, community cafes and religious centres.

Of the 67 community food aid providers, 52 per cent described themselves as secular, 36 per cent  identified as Christian and 10 per cent Muslim.

The study identified possible forms of unintentional exclusion by food aid providers, including:

  • The inability in most organisations to cater for cultural diets
  • Over-representation of people of a ‘white British’ ethnicity among the staff and clients
  • In some food banks and soup kitchens, the expectation that clients engage with Christian doctrine or symbols. 

Increasingly urgent

The study found that Christian food banks and soup kitchens reported serving very few Pakistani and or Muslim clients.

One manager of a soup kitchen said at least 50 to 60 per cent of those who used the service were white British young men.

Madeleine Power, Doctoral Researcher at the University of York, said: “As food and fuel prices rise, it is likely that food poverty and food aid will remain key - and increasingly urgent - issues in 2017.  It is vital that the government faces up to the reality of hunger in the UK and the inadequacy of charitable coverage”.

“We were surprised, given Bradford’s ethnic diversity, to find that clients of food aid providers were predominantly ‘white’.  We are concerned that this may be the result practices which unintentionally exclude some minority groups. It is essential that food aid is inclusive and accessible to whoever is in need.”

Community leaders

The study also found that, in the context of austerity, food aid is adopting service responsibilities previously borne by the state. However, rather than developing into a proxy welfare state, food aid is akin to a pre-welfare state system of food distribution, supported by religious institutions and individual/business philanthropy. Researchers say this raises serious questions regarding how successive governments have dealt with food poverty.

Bob Doherty, Professor of Marketing at the York Management School, University of York, said: “This is the first academic study in the UK to look in detail at the faith-based arrangements of Christian and Muslim food aid providers and explore how faith-based food aid organisations interact with people of other faiths and with the state. As such, it raises concerns about the accessibility of community food aid and the abdication of responsibility for food poverty by UK government.”

Researchers aim to conduct further quantitative research on food insecurity in Bradford and interview community leaders.

Further information:

  • The findings have been published in the Journal of Social Policy: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0047279417000010
  • The study is part of a project on ethnic and religious differences in food insecurity and food aid in the UK, based jointly at the University of York and Bradford Institute for Health Research. 

Contact details

Alistair Keely
Head of Media Relations

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153

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