Ways to care: forms and possibilities of compassion within UK food banks

Emma Surman, Mihaela Kelemen, Nick Rumens

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Food banks are organizations which occupy an uncomfortable position being seen both as a manifestation of caring communities as well as an undesirable feature of neoliberal government. By focusing on the encounters between volunteers and food bank users within these organisations, we excavate their caring side to find three forms of compassion: compassion ‘for’, compassion ‘with’ and compassion ‘within’. We show that while compassion ‘for’ can lead to countless selfless acts, it remains embedded within neoliberal discourses. This can serve to reinforce distance and inequalities between giver (volunteer) and receiver (food bank user), creating a chain of indebtedness as compassion becomes part of a transactional exchange offered to those seen as worthy. Compassion ‘with’ others focuses on the person rather than problem of food poverty and manifests itself in expressions of connection and responsibility which can, however, become possessive at times. Compassion ‘within’ is a form of compassion that, although less visible and demonstrative in response to the immediate suffering of others, provokes ethical and political reflection for individual volunteers who at times may challenge the very need for food banks. By grounding compassion in a specific social and organizational context, we highlight its relational nature and the dynamic and uncomfortable relation between different forms of compassion in the context of UK food banks. We conclude that compassion is a socially embedded and differentiated relationship which can activate affective, ethical and political responses to food poverty.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSociological Review
Early online date5 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Mar 2021


  • care
  • compassion
  • food banks
  • food poverty
  • volunteering


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