Families and Food in Hard Times

Posted on December 20, 2021 by Margie Coughlin

Today's guest post is an excerpt from the open access book Families and Food in Hard Times, by Rebecca O'Connell and Julia Brannen.

In Hard Times, published in 1854, Charles Dickens set out some fundamental principles of what he called the ‘Gradgrind philosophy’, which, in some respects, bears a striking resemblance to the neoliberal capitalism that has dominated the world since the late 1970s […]. 

This book, Families and Food in Hard Times, is about our world in the second decade of the twenty- first century and how parents living on low incomes in wealthy societies manage to feed their families. Although very different from the world of Dickens, in some respects today’s world mirrors elements of his time because of the harsh realities of poverty among large sections of the population in the Global North. Just  as the poor in many of Dickens’s novels struggle to keep their heads above water, to put food on the table and to hold on to their dignity, so too do the low- income families who have been living through the period  since the 2008 global financial crisis. Now, as in the nineteenth century, food poverty in rich societies powerfully reveals ‘the fundamental shortcomings of unbridled reliance on markets’ (Poppendieck 2012, 565).

In Dickens’s Hard Times, workers’ aspirations for better standards of living were denigrated as unrealistic; entitlements to ‘turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ were not for the likes of them. One hundred and sixty years later, in the same country in 2014, Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin (a panel member of the All- Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty) declared that the poor should ‘eat porridge’ instead of more expensive processed cereals (Wright 2014; Knight et al. 2018). Elsewhere in Europe, in 2012, President of the European Federation of Food Banks and President of the Portuguese Food Bank Isabel Jonet argued that the Portuguese would ‘have to learn to live poorer’ because ‘they had been living above their possibilities’. She added, ‘If you can’t afford to eat beef steak every day, then you should refrain from eating it’ (Barbosa 2012, n.p.). Through living – and eating – within their means, these actors suggest, the poor should know their place. For, as Dickens recognised, food is fundamentally a symbolic as well as material resource, an expression of a person’s worth and a powerful lens through which to view the social order.

The context in which we are writing this Introduction is not only very different from Dickens’s time; it is also very different from that in which we designed the study, carried out the research and wrote much of the book. The study on which the book is based was funded by the European Research Council, a public body that funds scientific and technological research conducted within the European Union (EU). It was conceived at a time (2012) when the UK was a member of the EU, an international commitment that we did not seriously think the UK government would terminate. Since the UK has left the European Union, the
UK’s future research is further compromised as the government proposes
to fund UK researchers’ participation in Horizon Europe from its existing
(UKRI) research budget.

The idea for the research was generated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis that occurred in 2008. At that time, the consequences of this event were becoming increasingly evident across Europe, notably the detrimental effects on those who were already among the most disadvantaged in society. In particular, we were concerned about the evidence, often based on international media reports, of increasing numbers of children arriving at school hungry and of a dramatic rise in the number of food banks handing out food parcels to families forced to choose between ‘heating and eating’. Little evidence existed, however,
about the types of families to which belong the growing numbers of children who lack enough decent food to eat, or the particular ways in which food poverty manifests and is managed and experienced in different places. Hardly any research included the experiences of children and young people, an omission that, as members of the Thomas Coram Research Unit, which since 1973 has specialised in research on children and families, we were keen to address. This book charts the effects of the 2008 crisis on the lives of children and their parents in different communities in three European countries.

This book is being completed in a very different, even worse, time of crisis that is engulfing the globe. The Covid- 19 pandemic and the public health measures implemented to mitigate its impact are having devastating effects not only on people’s health but also on their freedom to interact with others and on their economic circumstances. How deep the effects of the pandemic on people’s lives will be, or how long lasting, we currently have no idea. However, early evidence suggests that the crisis is exacerbating existing health and social inequalities. It is our hope that this book will alert the reader to some of the ways in which the pandemic is likely to disproportionately affect the lives of the most disadvantaged, such as the families we describe here.

An excerpt from Families and Food in Hard Times, by Rebecca O'Connell and Julia Brannen.

About the Authors

Rebecca O’Connell is Reader in the Sociology of Food and Families, Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education.

Julia Brannen is Emerita Professor of Sociology of the Family, Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education and Fellow of the Academy of Social Science.



Dickens, C. 1854. Hard Times. London: Bradbury & Evans.

Poppendieck, J. 2012. ‘Want among plenty: From hunger to inequality’, in Food and Culture: A  Reader, 3rd edn, edited by C. Counihan and P. Van Esterik, 563– 71. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Wright, O. 2014. ‘Tory attitudes to poverty under fire over benefit sanctions and Baroness Jenkin comment that poor “don’t know how to cook”: Baroness Jenkin forced to apologise after blaming food bank use on culinary incompetence’, The Independent, 8 December. 

Knight, A., J. Brannen, R. O’Connell and L. Hamilton. 2018. ‘How do children and their families experience food poverty according to UK newspaper media 2006– 2015?’ Journal of Poverty and Social Justice 26(2): 207– 33.

Barbosa, M. de Araújo. 2012. ‘Isabel Jonet: We live in an idiotic way’, Dinheirovivo. https:// economia/ nos- vivemos- de- uma- maneira- idiota/.


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