Beyond the food bank

Beyond the food bank: Using digital technologies to escape food poverty

The research question this project addresses is ‘In what ways can digital technologies be used to help users of food banks move out of food poverty’? To answer this question, the pilot project adopts a community based approach, involving those who use and work in food banks to identify their needs and requirements. These groups then worked together with experts in the field of digital technology at a “Hackathon” to explore the ways in which digital technologies can be best utilised to meet these identified needs, to overcome the ‘digital divide’ and in particular to explore the ways in which users can develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to move out of food poverty.

The idea for this project emerged directly from a recent conference held in Stoke-on-Trent focusing on food poverty in the local area. Evidence from various local organisations, including the experience of those who work in and used food banks, revealed that the ability to move out of food poverty was not only about the provision of food, but about having the confidence, knowledge, understanding, experience, and facilities to shop, cook and eat. Building on partnerships developed following this conference, Keele University, the New Vic Theatre (Borderlines) and local Food Banks (including the Trussell Trust) in Stoke-On-Trent will explore the ways in which digital technologies might be used to help transform and address these issues.

Although digital technologies are seen as a means of transforming access to information and help and support services, research has shown that many people remain excluded from their transformational potential. Helpser (2008) identified a significant relationship between social disadvantage and an individual’s ability to access and use digital services, arguing, “those who suffer deep exclusion are up to eight times more likely to be disengaged with the Internet than those who are social advantaged” (ibid, p.39). It is, therefore, those most in need of assistance, who often find themselves excluded from the very digital services that are designed to inform and support them. Social disadvantage increases the likelihood of suffering from food poverty and the need to turn to sources of support such as food banks. If digital technologies are to realise their transformational potential in relation to food poverty, it is essential that this ‘digital divide’ is addressed.

This project addresses the idea of ‘digital divide’ by taking as its starting point the experiences and thoughts of those who are in desperate need of the support and services provided by food banks. It will do this through a form of participatory research known as cultural animation. This research does not focus on pre-determined research questions, but instead aims to free every participant to identify relevant and significant issues from within their own experience (Mencwel, 2002), to generate ideas, data and results focusing on the concerns of individuals and communities that find themselves at the margins of society (Freire, 1996). Cultural animation has a long tradition in both continental Europe and Latin America, and has been pioneered in the UK through six recent AHRC funded projects, three ARHC showcase/ dissemination awards, involving collaborations between Keele University, The New Vic Theatre (Borderlines) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

(Surman, Case for Support)




Key Participants

Dr. Emma Surman (Principal Investigator) is a lecturer in Marketing and a member of the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Keele University. Her research interests lie in the intersections between production and consumption and the ways in which these overlap and unfold. Her current and recent fieldwork has focused on the production and consumption of food and includes a participative ethnographic study with primary school children growing (and eating) vegetables and other plants in a school garden and a study of ‘food swaps’ exploring the links between the creation of value, aesthetics and identity. She recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s daily consumer programme ‘You and Yours’ to discuss her research on food swaps in the context of the recession and alternative and collaborative forms of consumption.

Prof. Mihaela Kelemen (Co-Investigator) is Professor of Management and a member of the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Keele University. Her research is multi-disciplinary, covering topics such as community leadership, volunteering and cultural animation. She is currently Principal Investigator on four AHRC projects, one of which explores processes of co-design and co-production with communities of volunteers. The interactive audio-visual installations and documentary performances resulting from her animative research were showcased at the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase from London and Edinburgh (July, 2013), Japan (2013) Rotherham (2014), Canada (2014), London (2014) and Leicester (2014). She is an expert on practice theory having advanced the debate of Pragmatism in organisation and management studies.

Sue Moffat is Founding Director of New Vic Borderlines, an independent department within the New Vic Theatre. The work of New Vic Borderlines is inspired by the social agenda and through the belief that all individuals have the capacity to create dynamic and positive relationships, imaginative and generous solutions and take on roles and responsibilities which enhance their experience of the world and which acknowledge, appreciate, and embrace the roles of others. She has been acknowledged for her work through a number of national awards including a British Crime Concern Award for work on offending behaviour (Chapter 2) and two Global Ethics awards regionally and nationally for work done with young Muslim women and victims of racism (All Our Daughters?). Her work on historiographies of the Holocaust resulted in her becoming a Fellow of the Imperial War Museum in Holocaust Education.