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The role of grassroots food banks in building

political solidarity with vulnerable people

María Gómez Garrido, M. Antònia Carbonero Gamundí & Anahí Viladrich

To cite this article: María Gómez Garrido, M. Antònia Carbonero Gamundí & Anahí Viladrich
(2018): The role of grassroots food banks in building political solidarity with vulnerable people,
European Societies, DOI: 10.1080/14616696.2018.1518537

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Published online: 12 Sep 2018.

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The role of grassroots food banks in building political

solidarity with vulnerable people
María Gómez Garridoa, M. Antònia Carbonero Gamundía and
Anahí Viladrichb
Department of Philosophy and Social Work, Universitat de les Illes Balears, Palma – Illes
Balears, Spain; bDepartment of Sociology, Queens College – City University of New York,
Flushing, NY, USA

In the context of economic crisis and welfare retrenchment in Spain, food banks
have been an emergency solution for those at risk of social exclusion. Food
banks have been criticised for playing a significant role in perpetuating
dependency and, therefore, exacerbating inequality between those who
donate and receive help. However, in Madrid, in the years after the 15M
movement grassroots food banks initiatives resignified an old mode of
assistance by creating solidarity forms. In this paper, we analyse these
grassroots food banks with a particular emphasis on the case of Tetuán. We
show how political and interpersonal solidarity is built among grassroots
foodbanks’ members. We argue that these banks’ political motto leads to
inter-recognition among their participants. Furthermore, through a shared –
and permanently reinforced – discourse, food recipients identify the root
causes of their excruciating living conditions. Thus, a ‘we-ness’ (defined here
as a sense of cohesion and fellowship) is created, which challenges the
inequality and stigma reinforced by traditional, and charitable, forms of
assistance. In sum, grassroots food banks promote social inclusion as they not
only provide aid, but also endorse new venues for solidarity building that
challenges the hierarchical relationships, ingrained in traditional forms of
charity giving, typical of formal food banks.

ARTICLE HISTORY Received 21 December 2016; Accepted 17 July 2018

KEYWORDS Food banks; charity; political solidarity; inter-recognition; stigma

The 2008s economic crisis had a dramatic impact on unemployment and
poverty in Spain, which was only made worse by the severity of neoliberal
policies and welfare retrenchment. In this country, before the crisis, the
economy was heavily reliant on the construction sector and unwarranted

CONTACT María Gómez Garrido Universitat de les Illes Balears, Cra.
Valldemossa, km. 7,500, Palma – Illes Balears 07122, Spain
© 2018 European Sociological Association

property acquisition took place during the financial bubble (López and
Rodríguez 2011). The economic collapse led to a domino effect, resulting
in the closure of many small businesses and an escalating rise in unemploy-
ment. Evictions in Spain achieved the highest rate in all Europe (Cano
Fuentes et al. 2013). As a result, the increase in short-term employment con-
tracts and low wages multiplied the number of ‘working poor’ (Rubery
2011; Sarfati 2013). In 2012 the temporary employment rate in Spain
reached 25%, the second highest rate in the EU (Arnal et al. 2013: 284).
In this context, austerity measures dictated by the European Central
Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission,
imposed a retrenchment policy on the Spanish welfare state. Before the
crisis, hardly was the Spanish welfare state capable of covering basic
needs, including housing, unemployment allowance, or guaranteeing a
minimum income against poverty. Therefore, in the years that followed
the financial crisis, Spain experienced rising structural inequality and sus-
tained income depletion particularly among the working class.
Spain is characterised by the Mediterranean type of welfare state in
which the family plays a main role in providing social support (Moreno
et al. 2003) and where the redistributive role of the State is limited.
Greece, Spain and Portugal generally spend much less on social welfare
policies per inhabitant than other European countries (Theborn 2013:
472). These countries have reached the highest rates of income inequality
and unemployment in Europe (Theborn 2013: 473).
The weakening of the Spanish welfare state left larger numbers of indi-
viduals and families unprotected, further increasing their social exclusion
(Laparra and Pérez Eransus 2012; Mari-Klose and Martín Pérez 2015). In
2016 27.9% of the resident population in Spain (12,898,405) were at risk of
poverty and/or social exclusion, according to the At-risk-of poverty and
social exclusion rate (AROPE, Eurostat). Of these groups, 15% lived in
unemployed households (EAPN 2017). Even the access to food, which
is considered a basic and fundamental human right, has been severely
threatened for these groups (Antentas and Vivas 2014).
The mounting economic hardships experienced by the Spanish
working class in recent years has been addressed by third-sector initiatives
that typically provide basic means (such as food or clothing) to an increas-
ingly impoverished population. In this respect, the expansion of food
banks has been one of the most extensive and publicised forms of
hunger-based solutions. Food banks have been an object of interest
among scholars in the last decade given their ambiguous status: they
provide emergency aid against food insecurity but, at the same time,

play a significant role in perpetuating dependency by shifting the focus

from fighting for social justice and protecting social rights, to providing
a band-aid solution to poverty (Poppendieck 1998; Wekerle 2004;
Novik Warshawsky 2010; Riches and Silvasti 2014). Furthermore, the
mechanism by which food is usually distributed in food banks leads to
promoting the social stigmatisation of those who receive it (Riches
2002; Pérez de Armiño 2014).
But, in the context of the Spanish economic crisis, several local grass-
roots initiatives have emerged to propose different solutions to collectively
address the needs of the population, including food aid. Many of these
evolved in the context of the 15M movement, also known as the indigna-
dos movement that emerged on 15 May 2011, after a series of demon-
strations in almost 50 Spanish cities. Their slogan was ‘We are not
commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers,’ a motto that
brings about bottom-up struggles for income redistribution and social
justice. The movement first occupied the main central square in Madrid
(Puerta del Sol), where assemblies took place everyday. After one
month, the movement decentralised and organised in different neighbour-
hoods and villages.
The 15M movement is one among the several anti-austerity initiatives
that sprung up between 2011 and 2015 in Europe and the United States
(e.g. Occupy Wall Street). Scholars have characterised these phenomena
as part of a general wave of mobilisations for democracy and social
justice (Errejón Galván 2011; Fraser 2013; Della Porta 2015). According
to Nancy Fraser (2013), they represent a ‘triple movement’. Building on
Polanyi’s [1944] notion of a pendular ‘double movement’ between disem-
bedded commodification and social protection, the three movements
encompass commodification (represented by the market), social protec-
tion (represented by the State), and emancipation (represented by civil
society). In the struggles against capitalism, civil society has become a fun-
damental agent acting independently of the state, and sometimes in oppo-
sition to it.
The food banks linked to the 15M movement (called in this paper
grassroots food banks) are organised on the basis of mutual aid and pol-
itical action principals. They were founded with the mission to challenge
both traditional charity principles, typical of many church organisations,
and the corporate discourse characteristic of the Food Bank Foundation –
the main provider for food banks in Spain. Grassroots food banks have
become active in a series of middle-to-low income neighbourhoods
(Carabanchel, Tetuán, San Blas, Vallecas, Villaverde in the city, and

Coslada, Alcorcón, or Fuenlabrada in the greater metropolitan area), most

of which composed of a significant immigrant population.1
This paper aims to analyse the emergence of grassroots food banks in
Spain as a political form of solidarity building that re-signifies, and trans-
cends, the charity approach employed by most food banks, which we term
‘formal food banks’ here. To that end, we ask how Spanish grassroots food
banks can be distinguished from other traditional forms of charity by pro-
moting social inclusion on the basis of social empowerment and political
awareness. We pay special attention to how political solidarity is con-
structed within grassroots banks with respect to both the aims of the
organisation and its public discourse, as well as the dynamics of social
interactions that take place among their members (both activists and
The first section of this paper discusses the concepts of reciprocity and
solidarity and applies them to the phenomenon of food banks. Next, we
present our analysis of grassroots food banks in Madrid, with a particular
focus on the case of Tetuán. We argue that these banks’ horizontal form of
solidarity challenges the unequal relationships sought by formal food
banks. This is done in three ways: First, in grassroots food banks formal
control of eligibility is replaced by trust. Consequently, food aid is given
to all participants who ask for it. Secondly ‘colaboradores’ (the activists,
who voluntarily participate in a food bank albeit do not receive food)
and ‘recipients’ jointly participate in food gathering in front of supermar-
kets once a week. They wear the same vests – as a sort of political state-
ment that leads to erasing differences between them. Thirdly, weekly
assembly meetings embody the ideological basis of grassroots food
banks in which ‘we-ness’ is constructed.
Far from idealising this alternative form of hunger relief, we also
acknowledge the tensions that emerge among food bank participants,
given the divergent social backgrounds – particularly between activists
and recipients – along with the different roles that participants perform
within them. Despite these strains, grassroots food banks play an impor-
tant role for social inclusion by creating new forms of interpersonal collab-
oration, on the basis of advancing an emancipatory social and political
agenda. We conclude by reflecting on the importance of these emerging
forms of social and political solidarity in promoting social inclusion in a
context of rising social inequalities, along with the retrenchment of the
welfare state in the global North.

There are around 27 grassroots food banks located in Madrid and the greater metropolitan area.

Reciprocity, solidarity and social inclusion: the case of food

The rise in poverty after the economic crisis, in countries of the global
North, has raised concerns about the food security of their populations.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations food security ‘exists when all people, at all times, have physical
and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their
dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life’ (FAO
1996). However, there are different forms by which food is provided to
those who need it, which also have a disparate impact in terms of advan-
cing (or not) food justice, solidarity building and citizenship rights.
One of the main ways of providing emergency food for those in need is
through food banks. As mentioned in the introduction, these organis-
ations have been criticised for mostly providing charity aid to the poor.
Simmel ([1908] 1964: 135) observed that, historically, assistance to the
poor, whether in the religious form of charity or in some forms of
welfare policies, excludes the poor from membership and participation.
The poor remains outside the group inasmuch as (s)he is a mere object
of the actions of others. Becoming assisted implies a status loss and, par-
ticularly in market societies, the person acknowledged as ‘poor’ often
endures a stigma, that is, a discrediting attribute. Following Goffman,
stigma is a trait ‘embedded in a language of relationships’ 1963: 12). In
market societies, the poor are understood as not being capable to or not
making sufficient effort to work, to manage themselves (Kahl 2005).
Given that poverty is not necessarily a visible mark on the body, many
people try to hide their situation by avoiding seeing as being publicly
assisted, since the latter draws a symbolic boundary between mainstream
society and those being helped – thus becoming the marginalised ‘other’.
Food banks actually expose this dyad through the mere action of giving
assistance vis-à-vis the symbolic meanings reckoned by those
The sociology of poverty, as proposed by Simmel, coincides in part with
the emblematic innuendos of gift exchange. Following Mauss (1923) the
latter both helps create and sustain social ties and bonds by promoting
a sense of moral obligation among participants. Gift exchange is a mech-
anism that binds people to one another and, in a sense, becomes the moral
cement of society (Van Oorshoot and Komter 1998: 11f.). Although most
forms of gift exchange are based on the obligation to ‘reciprocate’, a
problem arises when lack of resources (i.e. money or time) precludes

the possibility of mutual giving. Reciprocity, in this case, may work as a

principle of exclusion (Van Oorshoot and Komter 1998: 13).
Formal food banks are constructed on a particular kind of gift exchange
that does not transcend inequality; rather, it institutionalises it. Van der
Horst et al. (2014) have analysed the feeling of recipients who express
how compulsory gratitude feels degrading. Other scholars show that
people employ a whole range of tactics when facing dire situations, ren-
dering food aid only a last resort. For many, asking for food aid in a
food bank is a difficult experience that engenders a stigma and feelings
of shame and guilt (Lambie-Mumford and Dowler 2014; Hall 2015).
In contrast to most forms of giving, Malinowski and Sahlins also ident-
ified a ‘pure gift’, defined as: ‘an offering for which nothing is given [or
expected] in return’ (Malinowski 1922, cf. Sahlins 1965: 146). According
to Sahlins this form of generalised reciprocity is related to social closeness.
Consequently, as Komter (2005) notes, the kind of reciprocity among a
group of people is contingent upon perceived social distance among
them. More concretely, the practice of generalised reciprocity is a form
of solidarity in which there is always a certain construction of a ‘we-
ness’. Solidarity derives from the Latin solidare – to make firm, to
combine parts to form a strong whole (Komter 2005: 1). Solidarity
relationships, by definition, can neither be based on hierarchical domina-
tion nor on market exchange (Pizzorno 2007); they are based upon inter-
personal support.
Sholz (2008: 5) differentiates between social solidarity, supported by the
bonds of a community united by some shared characteristic; civic solidar-
ity, represented by the obligations of civil society to protect citizens against
(welfare policies); and political solidarity, which translates into political
activism towards seeking structural social changes. Political solidarity
symbolises unity of individuals who have made a commitment [emphasis
added] to a struggle for liberation in response to a situation of injustice or
oppression (25ff.). Moral commitment is, therefore, the basis of this form
of solidarity (38) and it requires ‘individual conscience’, which does not
emerge out of a private dialogue but instead is created through a social
and political process. In the case of grassroots food banks in Madrid, we
argue that these organisations construct a moral context of commitment
and civic virtue that becomes the basis for participants’ recognition of
each other as equals.
Case studies in other countries, like the United States, show that some
food banks have become more than a source of food aid and a survival
strategy – they represent a form of resistance against neoliberal policies

where networks of mutual aid are reinforced (Mares 2013). In the follow-
ing sections, we analyse how political solidarity is constructed in grass-
roots food banks in Spain.

Setting and methods

The analysis presented in this paper is part of a larger project on the role of
reciprocity and solidarity networks in promoting social inclusion in Spain
in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008.2 Throughout our study, we
identified a number of grassroots food banks that are located both in the
city of Madrid and in the greater metropolitan area. Most of these organ-
isations are found in poor and lower middle-class neighbourhoods and
count on large immigrant populations. They emerged after the 15M
movement, are organised independently and not recognised by the Fed-
eración Banco de Alimentos – the main food provider to organisations.
During the data collection process, we carried out ethnographic
research, consisting in participant observation activities by one of the
co-authors of this paper, and that took place in a bank located in the
neighbourhood of Tetuán. Furthermore, semi-structured interviews
were conducted with participants of the grassroots food banks of Villa-
verde, Coslada, San Blas and the Popular Solidarity Network in Caraban-
chel, and content analysis of the websites and papers published by these
food banks. In order to guarantee confidentiality, the names of the inter-
viewees and references to participants have been changed in this paper.
The food bank of Tetuán (where participant observation took place)
was particularly chosen due to its significant activism, as it has become
a key political actor in making proposals to the Town Council, along
with the diversity of the low-income population it serves. Regular partici-
pant observation on this site took place between the months of December
2015 and May 2016, and regular contact with some of the food bank’s
members has been maintained ever since. Fieldwork activities initially
involved attending the bank’s assemblies that were held every Tuesday,
as well as participating in the food collection campaigns that took place
in front of large supermarkets every Friday.
The assemblies where participant observation took place varied in com-
position (some people left when their situation improved and new people
arrived), and counted 20–30 participants – most of them representatives
We first mapped a series of new civil society projects to better understand the process of how different
forms of solidarity emerge and are constructed. A key selection criterion was that the projects had
among their participants people at risk of social exclusion.

of a family unit. Women outnumbered men and the proportion of immi-

grants was larger than the Spanish population. The study’s analytical
approach was supported by thick description throughout the whole
research process (Geertz 1973). The latter involved active participant
observation, formal and informal conversations (through semi-structured
interviews and casual conversations) along with systematic note taking on
the interactions that took place among food banks’ participants. The study
included ten semi-structured interviews, held in Tetuán, with an equal
number of activists and recipients. These interviews served to clarify,
and triangulate, the information collected through the observations and
ongoing conversations held with the food bank’s participants (around
30). In addition, periodic – mostly informal – conversations took place
between the fieldworker and study participants. This was complemented
by ten semi-structured interviews conducted with recipients of the grass-
roots food banks of Coslada, Villaverde, Carabanchel (Popular Solidarity
Network) and San Blas. The materials collected in the grassroots food
banks were complemented with content analysis of the Federación
Banco de Alimentos’ website (FESBAL). The FESBAL is a private organis-
ation that defines itself as a non-profit organisation and which channels
the largest share of food aid in Spain to formal food banks.
All the grassroots food banks located in Madrid present a similar form
of organisation. People get together once or twice a week: once for the
assembly meeting (taking place weekly), and a second time for food col-
lection activities in front of large supermarkets – in some grassroots
food banks food collection is every week in others every two weeks or
once a month. Food-gathering efforts always take place in the neighbour-
hood where the grassroots banks are located. Thus, after time, most people
living in the area are familiar with the grassroots food banks.
The Tetuán food bank – where participant observation took place – is
found on the north part of Madrid, in a neighbourhood that is drastically
represented by two extremes: one part being very rich, and the other one
being inhabited by a low-income population that lives in old and poorly
constructed buildings. This latter neighbourhood has the second highest
percentage of immigrants in Madrid. The two areas (rich and poor) live
with their backs to each other, as the population of one does not have
any relations to the other.
The grassroots food bank in this neighbourhood was created in 2012 in
connection with the local Platform against Evictions, in order to provide
food aid for people who had been evicted. For some time, this food bank
stored the food in one of the local neighbourhood associations. However,

in 2014, and after a municipal order was issued against the association for
storing food without sanitary control, the food bank moved to a social
centre. This centre was funded in 2008 squatting an abandoned building.
It was initially used for activities that included a community radio station,
a barter market, political and social talks, and a playground for children.
Upon the ignition of the 15M movement, the social centre began changing
its composition and activities as it welcomed the assemblies sponsored by
the local Platform against Eviction, Invisibles3 and the grassroots food
bank, all of which ended up using the squat installations as their main
The fact that all the different initiatives, linked to the 15M, gathered in
the social centre brought a change in the social and demographic compo-
sition of those who participated in their activities. If during its first years
(2008 onwards) these were mainly young white Spanish people with a lib-
ertarian ideology, after the 15M movement (approximately since 2012),
middle and old age neighbours (some of whom had no previous political
experience) along with large numbers of immigrants from different
countries, began using this space by joining several community-based pro-
jects. Since then the squat has continued being opened to the neighbour-
hood, thus becoming a legitimate grassroots social centre that plays a
crucial community role.

Formal food banks and grassroots initiatives

In Spain, food aid is mainly channelled through the Federación Banco de
Alimentos (Food Bank Federation, FESBAL), and the Cred Cross. The
latter is the second main food aid distributor in Spain that provides
direct aid to recipients and delivers staples to other food banks. The Fed-
eración was created in 1996 and is the main distributor of food aid to non-
profit organisations – the large majority of which are confessional. It
receives funds from the largest companies in Spain (including the oil
industry, banks, telecommunications and agro-food companies) all of
which receive tax deductions as a result of their contributions. It is also
supported by the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (European
Commission). The Federación boasts of having the same efficiency as a
large corporation, based on ‘business criteria’ ( It works
as a monopoly of food aid and has copyrighted the term ‘banco de alimen-
tos’ [food bank]. Its efforts to control food charity became clear when the
Invisibles is a social movement, created in the same context and in this neighbourhood, that demands
social rights for people at risk of social exclusion and organises accompaniment to social services.

Federation legally sued the Tetuán grassroots bank for using the term
‘food bank’. Indeed, research has shown that the Federación has system-
atically taken legal action against any grassroots food bank that organises
outside their control (Gascón and Montagut 2014).
Almost 80% of the food bank organisations existing in Madrid (most of
which are recipients from FESBAL) are religious groups, the majority of
them being Catholic. Yet, in recent years, there has been an increase of
non-Catholic religious organisations, (Cabrera Cabrera et al. 2016).
These organisations work in coordination with local social services. In
order to become a recipient of food aid, applicants need to fulfil a series
of conditions: 1) they need to have a legal status in the country (i.e.
possess a National Spanish ID or a resident permit); 2) they must be regis-
tered as a resident in the area; 3) they need to present a referral from a
social worker that recommends the person for food aid. These require-
ments, as stipulated by the European Commission, actually exclude a
large number of people in need of food assistance.
The set-up of grassroots food banks is quite different. First, they are
not funded by any formal public or private entity. Second, by being
independent from both the FESBAL and the Red Cross, grassroots
food banks bypass two important access barriers established by the
former: (1) citizenship (or legal status) requirements, and (2) a
means-test policy. With respect to the first condition, this difference is
evident by the fact that some participants, who were undocumented
immigrants, arrived at the Tetuán food bank after being denied food
by other NGOs – which typically claim being unable to serve them as
they need to justify aid on the basis of proving legal status. With
regards to the second requirement set up by formal food banks, the
Tetuán grassroots food bank embraces the principle that everyone,
who, is a neighbourhood resident, is eligible for food aid regardless of
legal status. Finally, with respect to the third condition, grassroots
food banks do not require any means-testing proof. Anyone who asks
for food aid is believed to be in need for it.
There is one requirement, however, that everybody must meet in order
to become a rightful member of the grassroots food bank: to participate in
both the assemblies and the regular food collection efforts. This condition
is closely allied to the idea of building interpersonal solidarity on the basis
of expressing commitment to the food bank’s larger political causes (Sholz
2008). The Tetuán grassroots food bank’s website slogans clearly illustrate
this point: ‘Que se acabe la caridad y que empiece la justicia’ [May charity
come to an end and justice begin]. It also asks for ‘solidaridad, apoyo

mutuo, autogestión’ [solidarity, mutual aid, self-management] as key

elements of its guiding principles.

The grassroots food bank as a social movement: constructing

political solidarity by challenging inequality
In the first stages of the grassroots food banks connected to the 15M
movement, food was exclusively provided by neighbourhood residents,
most of whom voluntarily donated products directly to grassroots food
banks. Arguably this did not completely challenge a kind of sweet
charity, paraphrasing Poppendieck (1998), that is typical of hunger
relief efforts. ‘Donating food’ represents a compassionate gesture on the
part of good willing individuals who, however, do not aim at challenging
the unequal distribution and access to food.
Through time, however, the way in which neighbours approached the
Tetuán donation cart placed in front of the supermarkets – along with the
things they said – implied that giving staples to the 15M food bank meant
something different from donating food to either a formal food bank or a
church. Thus, frequently-used expressions like ‘fuerza’, ‘ánimo en la lucha’
or ‘salud’, [roughly translated as ‘strength’, ‘stay strong in the fight’]
denote a language that is closer to comradeship than to charity.
As noted earlier, regular participation in the food bank’s assembly,
along with working in the food collection shifts, are the two mandatory
conditions for receiving a food pack. Undoubtedly, these rules are
closely linked with the principle of eliciting personal commitment
among food receivers, towards building political solidarity among all par-
ticipants. The requirement to attend the regular assemblies is aimed to
avoid ‘passive’ reception among beneficiaries, as well as to encourage par-
ticipation and a sense of autonomy and empowerment. This was clearly
summarised as follows by one of the Tetuán food bank activists:
… to reject assistencialism as this keeps a hierarchical bond between the donor
and the receiver … . It is the [needy] families themselves who participate in the
assemblies, because the assembly is the subject of decision-making. It is the
families themselves who cover food collection shifts … . It is the families them-
selves because they are perfectly able to organize themselves. They are people
who have suffered, they have to work in order to get through, but they can
do it. (Ignacio, food bank activist)

The grassroots movement wants to break with the popular represen-

tation in which the poor is given a passive and dependent role, as if
(s)he was incapable of organising for his/her rights (Herrera-Pineda and

Pereda Olarte 2017). It is precisely that passive reception of the actions of

others that, according to Simmel, built a symbolic frontier between the
‘poor’ and the rest of society.
The stigma associated to receiving food aid has been acknowledged by
other food-aid organisations. For instance, Caritas (one of the major Catho-
lic organisations of social action in Spain) has lately changed its traditional
food-giving practices to a system of vouchers by which the person gets access
to products in supermarkets – thus seemingly avoiding stigmatisation.4
However, in this model, food recipients are not asked about their opinions
or preferences on the matter. Furthermore, vouchers imitate a market model
of consumption and social relations, leading to individuation.5 Finally,
formal food banks (those dependent on FESBAL and the Red Cross that
includes Caritas) have no space for collective decision-making. In fact,
decisions are made either by the donors or professionals working at those
organisations (i.e. social workers, educators, psychologists).
By contrast, grassroots food banks aim at building a horizontal model
of participation by having the ‘assembly’ as the key social milieu where all
decision-making concerning food gathering and distribution takes place.
It is at the regular assemblies where short- and long-term political initiat-
ives are discussed by all participants, including food recipients. The
importance of the assembly as a place of encounter and decision-
making is emphasised by many recipients in the interviews.
I could go to Cáritas and just receive food, but I like to meet people, I like to talk
to them, to see what we can do. I like feeling useful. (Jennifer, food bank

The aspiration to full equality sought by the members of grassroots

food banks is not without challenges. Participation does start from an
unequal place, as there exists a clear distinction between activists, that is
people who attend the assembly and participate in food collection activi-
ties – albeit do not need to receive food aid – and the receivers, who must
participate in those activities in order to get food. This could, in principle,
represent an obstacle for the bank’s solidarity-building efforts. However,
these challenges are overcome in various ways.

This decision has been carried out by several of Caritas territorial offices. See, for instance, La opinión de
Zamora, 2 January 2016; El día de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 19 December 2013.
The chef Massimo Bottura explained his Milan project of refettorio with these words: ‘I thought: “we know
how to create hospitality. Restoring the dignity of people is not to throw them a spoon of kitchen soup.
Let’s serve them as if they were in a restaurant”’. This is another example of how attempts to avoid stig-
matisation and restore the ‘dignity’ of the people who receive some form of food aid reproduce a con-
sumer model. Massimo Bottura. Las obsesiones de un cocinero, El país semanal, N° 2170, p. 46.

First, food bank participants emphasise the structural causes of the

social exclusion, and poverty, experienced by food receivers. Based on
the logic of denunciation (Boltanski et al. 1984), grassroots food banks
place the blame for one’s situation on the perverse impact of post-indus-
trial and neoliberal policies that has left ‘out of the system’ large segments
of the middle and the working class in Spain. In this way, the experience of
dire poverty is not seen as an individual problem but as a social one that
needs to be addressed by everyone, recipients and activists, including those
who may not need food aid.
Furthermore, by building a language based on food rights and social
solidarity – e.g. everyone could be without a job and go hungry at one
point or another – there is no need to share the same experience in
order to become ‘equals’ in the construction of shared political projects,
a characteristic that differentiates social and political solidarity (Sholz
2008). The difficult experience of the recipient, who has gone through
economic hardship, provides the content for the movement as the experi-
ence of the oppressed (Sholz 2008: 34). Ultimately, community-based
undertakings on food access and distribution involve political emancipa-
tion in as much as it problematises the notions of ‘assistance’ and ‘aid’, by
emphasising the principles of food justice on the basis of equal entitlement
to rights. In the words of one activist:
People who come here have suffered all kinds of humiliations because of their
situation. And in that process they lose the memory of having rights. And here
we insist that food is a right, housing is a right. They cannot allow other people
to look down at them just because they don’t have a job and other people do.
(Ana, food bank activist)

Public denunciation of the structural causes of social exclusion ulti-

mately encourages a collective ‘we-ness’ that appeals to social justice
and, throughout this process, it aims at restoring dignity and self-
esteem to those in need. Both activists and recipients, who had been
active in the Tetuan food bank for some time, reported that this organis-
ation had become a place where individuals in need could overcome their
feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment in a positive and constructive
As noted earlier, both activists and recipients participate in the assem-
blies and in food collection efforts by wearing the same vests. In this way,
not only those in need avoid the shame of being identified as food recipi-
ents but also makes the grassroots food bank visible to neighbourhood
residents (particularly shoppers). The vests have the inscription ‘15M

Food Bank’ so that people can identify them and differentiate them from
other food banks. One of the food bank recipients, Javier, told us about the
typical conversations he often had with other participants:
A lot of people say: ‘oh, I don’t know … I think I can’t be there standing in front
of a supermarket.’ And I say to them, ‘hey, you are wearing a vest. Nobody
knows whether you are the person affected or whether you are an activist.’ In
that way you break up with the feeling of shame. (Javier, food bank recipient)

According to Javier, it is important to promote a sense of shared hom-

ogeneity between food bank members, so that food donors will be unable
to tell the difference between those who are receiving food and those who
are volunteering for the project. Nevertheless, it is equally important not
to conceal the hunger that many people are currently experiencing in
Spain. In Javier’s words: ‘As I say to by-passers, we are not just asking
for aid, we are giving visibility to a problem and turning it into a collective
Finally, all participants at the grassroots food banks join forces towards
working for larger political movements, so recipients become ‘members’ of
such causes and not just passive subjects. In the words of a recipient of the
Carabanchel Popular Solidarity Network:
For us it is very important to join the struggles in the neighbourhood. For
example, we have joined the protest against the closure of the local Public
Health Centre. And in that way we give back to the neighbours the support
we receive from them. (Gerardo, food bank recipient)

In the act of ‘giving back’ to their neighbourhood, the gift received

(food) is returned in the form of food recipients’ commitment to collective
demands raised at the local political level. In this vein, participants of the
Tetuán food bank have also joined other social movements in the area,
and organised rallies and demonstrations in favour of a multicultural
and inclusive neighbourhood. Last, the Tetuán food bank has become
an active member at the Table Against Social Exclusion – a neighbour-
hood initiative of Invisibles and the grassroots food bank. The Table reg-
ularly meets either in the public square or in the local town council. Many
groups are part of it, including social movements, associations, NGOs and
local social-service organisations, whose main purpose is to find solutions
to the growing social exclusion experienced by vulnerable groups in
Madrid. The organisations created in connection with the 15M movement
(the grassroots food bank, Invisibles and the Platform for the People
Affected by Mortgages) are the only ones in which those in need actively

participate in meetings. Contrary to this participatory mode of operation,

charity NGOs and government aid groups, on the other hand, send their
professionals to speak on behalf of those in need.
Grassroots food banks building of solidarity is not at the margins of
public policies. They have all signed the Platform for the Letter Against
Hunger, which has brought together around 40 organisations to demand
that Regional governments, along with local and State governments, insti-
tute policy changes to ensure food security along with putting an end to
charity and the resulting stigmatisation that marks those in need of food
aid (González Parada 2015). This has given way to a Legislative Initiative
for the Madrid Regional Parliament, which is to be discussed in June 2018.

Solidarity at the micro-level: overcoming challenges by learning by


In the grassroots banks, solidarity is an ongoing and interpersonal con-

struction that is shaped via day-to-day encounters. Undoubtedly, this is
not an easy task. As noted earlier, the fact that activists are not required
to attend either the assemblies or the food collections – as much as the
second do – may put a certain strain on their interactions. However,
this was not a key issue at the assembly meetings the research team had
a chance to participate in.
Admittedly, the virtuous subject par excellence is the colaborador. As an
activist, (s)he is considered the one having political conscience – a quality
that is not always assumed among food beneficiaries. Indeed, some acti-
vists behaved as if their role was to raise political awareness in the
minds of food recipients. Still, most of the time, the Tetuán food bank
(along with the other ones we interviewed – Coslada, Villaverde, Caraban-
chel, San Blas) offered a warm, welcoming space, in which political
struggle went hand in hand with demonstrations of empathy, interperso-
nal connectedness and even humour. In fact, mutual aid erupted spon-
taneously at the Tetuán food bank during dramatic moments. This was
especially clear when one of the food recipients died, during a cold
winter, and quickly, a successful fundraising event was put together by
the assembly in order to repatriate his corpse to the Dominican Republic.
Here crowd funding was led namely by food recipients all of whom were
very active during the whole process and organised popular meals and
different activities to collect the money.
An article entitled ‘Stories of (losing) hope’ was published in the 15M
magazine. The article, written by two doctors that were collaborating

with the grassroots food bank, provided statistics on how adverse living
conditions could affect one’s ability to survive and ask for help. The text
remarked that hope was lost when a person had little to eat and could
rarely indulge in products like meat or fish. Hope was also lost when an
individual could not keep his/her home adequately heated. Hope,
however, could be restored when people were able to defend themselves
collectively by organising solidarity-building projects (Banco de alimentos
15M Tetuán 2016). As this case indicates, the kind of solidarity promoted
by grassroots food banks aims at making food recipients feel that they are
not alone, on the basis of constructing a shared sense of collective well-
being. For some of the food bank participants, this is even more important
than getting any type of food aid:
It is not just for the food that I receive. At the end of the day, I live on my own,
and I have no children. I can manage with little food. Rather, it is for being here,
in this group, and to work together [with] mutual aid, [with] solidarity. When
you have been without a job for a long time, and do not have enough money to
pay for the rent, for transportation, for … you get into an emotional state …
Some days you … you have so much stress, tension … you start to lose sleep
over … and you get to a moment in which you just want to die, and you
think ‘I wish I wouldn’t get up tomorrow.’ And then I found this group: a
place for debate, a place for proposals … And perhaps this doesn’t solve the
immediate problem of paying my rent. But, when I am here, when we go
together to a demo … I feel … I don’t feel like so shit. So it helps you to feel
… more solid, to feel that you can. (Alejandro, food bank recipient)

The goals of the grassroots food banks, along with other community
initiatives, go beyond providing aid for basic needs. As explained in this
paper, the political solidarity instilled by this type of movements aims at
reinforcing a space for consciousness-raising in which individual pro-
blems are transformed into a common struggle for liberation against
oppression (Sholz 2008; Fraser 2013). In this process, the micro inter-
actions taking place between different types of food bank participants
help restore hope among those who feel that the system has failed them.
Furthermore, in the context of the constitution of new local govern-
ments after 2015, some of these initiatives, like the grassroots food
banks of Tetuán, have played a fundamental role in a public dialogue con-
cerning social exclusion and the required policies to address it.

In the present context of rising poverty and inequality in Spain, large
sectors of the population have turned to social services and other forms

of aid. Food banks have multiplied as one, among many, of the emergency
solutions that have sprung in recent years. Formal food banks’ charity
motto – built on the basis of unequal social bonds – somehow contradicts
the principles of food justice on the basis of social and political empower-
ment. Instead, the grassroots food banks explored in this paper constitute
a form of political solidarity that challenges the unequal relationship insti-
tuted by charity principles of most formal food banks. As discussed in pre-
vious pages, this is achieved in several ways.
Firstly, the grassroots food banks’ public, and political, stand against
hunger has turned it into an issue of social justice, amid a critical frame-
work that opposes capitalism as disembedded market relations. Food (like
housing) is then conceived as a right that should be provided to all human
beings; therefore, assuring access to food ultimately becomes a token of
political activism towards demanding basic social and political rights.
Secondly, food bank recipients learn that they do not need to feel either
ashamed or grateful for what they receive. In fact, not only are they not
represented as passive recipients, but in the activities of food gathering
and decision-making processes they are part of lead them to becoming
empowered and de-stigmatised. Ultimately, they do become active
actors in the collective construction of ‘we-ness’. Finally, in order to
become a food recipient, it is key (and expected) for participants to
become active members in the food banks’ larger campaigns and in
other local struggles for social justice. This is related to the principle of
personal commitment that is central to building political solidarity.
In contrast to formal food banks, where only professionals (or donors)
make decisions, recipients in grassroots initiatives participate in collective
decision-making. Throughout this process, they empower themselves as
citizens regardless of whether or not they have legal status or financial
means. This is key to overcoming social exclusion on the basis of promot-
ing a sort of in situ solidarity. As explained in this paper, individuals at risk
of social exclusion, who joined grassroots food banks, were able to restore
a sense of dignity and enhance their wellbeing. This embodied sense of
collective belonging is connected to the fact that they shared their pro-
blems and helped one another while becoming active doers in the food
bank’s initiatives. Food recipients were not passive but active members
of a collective cause. In the end, these participatory model leads to a
process of inter-recognition in which a shared sense of belonging is
socially and politically constructed.
We are well aware that, in their beginnings, grassroots food banks,
created collectively as an emergency response, did not solve the complex

problem of food sovereignty and food justice in the medium and long run.
Nevertheless, these bottom-up initiatives do play a key role in constructing
neighbourhood-based solidarity by both transcending material needs, and
creating a collective sense of inclusion as an alternative model to market
relationships. The ‘we-ness’ that grassroots initiatives actively help build
plays a fundamental role in promoting social belonging as part of a larger
social justice movement. This is an important legacy of the 15M.
As time goes by, some of these initiatives have been able to engage local
governments in a public dialogue regarding the right to food. They have
thus become a key agent in the struggle for the recognition of this and
other human rights. Their particular significance owes much, however,
to the processes by which political solidarity has been constructed at the
micro-level, allowing people in situations of poverty to become ‘full
members’ of a community.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

This work was supported by Secretaría de Estado de Investigación, Desarrollo e Inno-
vación [grant number CSO2014-57084-R].

Notes on contributors
María Gómez Garrido (BA History, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; PhD Social
and Political Sciences, European University Institute) is Lecturer in Sociology at the
Universitat de les Illes Balears. Her research focuses on social inequality, misrecogni-
tion and stigma and on the social processes that allow for the formation of social and
political identities. She has also done research on comparative European social
Maria Antònia Carbonero Gamundí is PhD in Geography (1989) and in Political and
Social Science (1996). She is full professor at the Balearic Islands University. Her
research is mainly in sociology of gender, social exclusion and social policy. Some
of her publications about gender include the co-edition of the book Entre la familia
y el trabajo: conflictos, relaciones y políticas públicas de género en Europa y
América Latina (Homo Sapiens 2007) the chapter “¿Hacia una ciudadanía inclusiva
de género?” in Indagaciones sobre la ciudadanía. Transformaciones en la era global
(Icaria 2007) the book Nancy Fraser. Dilemas de la justicia en el siglo XXI. Género
y globalización (Universitat de les Illes Balears, 2011) of which she is co-editor. In

relation to the subject of social exclusion and social policy, a chapter in Crisis and
Social Fracture in Europe (La Caixa, Welfare Projects, 2012).
Anahi Viladrich is a sociologist and medical anthropologist originally from Argen-
tina, she holds a B.A./M.A. in Sociology from the University of Buenos Aires, a
Master’s Degree in Sociology and a PhD in Sociomedical Sciences (with concentration
in Medical Anthropology) from Columbia University, awarded with Distinction and
the Marisa de Castro Benton Award, in 2003. An expert on international migration,
Viladrich’s current research involves the study of food practices and societal responses
to food insecurity—supported by novel grassroots initiatives—in Spain and the U.S.
Viladrich is currently Full Professor in the Department of Sociology (with a courtesy
appointment in the Anthropology Department) at Queens College of the City Univer-
sity of New York (CUNY). She is also affiliate with the Department of Sociology at the
Graduate Center and the School of Public Health of CUNY.

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