Weymouth lies within an area of outstanding natural beauty, sweeping golden sands that attracts a huge tourist industry, mainly for families to enjoy the safe shallow waters of the blue flag awarded beach, and for retirees who enjoy a much slower, relaxed pace of life.

Weymouth also boasts a magnificent historic harbour that attracts a large number of the yachting fraternity throughout the year, where visitors can moor overnight (or longer) for mooring set mooring fees. The inner harbour is accessed through a twin leaf bascule type bridge that lifts open 364 days a year every two hours, allowing visitors to meander to a mooring spot, safe and sheltered from any storms that may arise.

One storm that occurred in October coincided with my first volunteer shift at Help the Homeless soup kitchen, alongside Weymouth’s inner harbour. The wind howled around me my initial, nervous steps towards the group of volunteers, unsteady as the wind enveloped me, propelling me towards them. The deafening clanging of the yachts in the gale, the juxtaposition of wealth right up alongside the most marginalised and segregated, vulnerable people in our society, took my breath away and left me speechless.

This report will focus on the political reasons that may influence an individual to volunteer and shall examine whether there is a general consensus between the states involvement (or lack of) in soup kitchens and how these soup kitchens reflect in todays political landscapes; are they part of a “bigger society” that we should be proud of, or do these soup kitchens say something else about society today? It will examine the idea of the “Free Gift” and whether volunteers are truly giving something for nothing.

My aim is to suggest that these soup kitchens are a shocking indictment into the state of a nation and that gifting to strangers, although appearing to have no expectation of reciprocity, is in fact, a balanced reciprocity.

Literature Review, Findings and Discussions

Imagine eating your food on the cold dark floor, night after night. How utterly demoralizing for them.”

The Anthropology of Food and Drink (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002) introduces a subsection of food ethnographies of food insecurities, where people are not able to obtain or consume food that is not of a healthy standard or of sufficient quantity, in a socially acceptable way (Dowler, E and O’Connor, D, 2011). Mintz and Du Bois (2002) explain that food enhances group membership and also allows for groups of people to be differentiated from one another. We see this exactly played out at our soup kitchen; the food is reinforcing the group in which these homeless people belong , in addition, because they are using the soup kitchen, it then sets them apart from the rest of society, obtaining their food in a way that is not commonly socially acceptable. A camping table hastily erected under a street lamp, their food quickly served in the chilly damp night on plastic plates with plastic knives and forks, the steam swirling into the dizzily cold nights sky. These people are not camping, they live like this, hand to mouth, far from a socially acceptable way to eat food in the 21st Century.

It’s like we’ve turned the clock back 100 years!

It conjures up images of Victorian London of dank alleys with lingering, poor outcasts of society (Stedman Jones, G. 1992) where “indiscriminate giving of alms” shake the foundations of the social fabric, weakening a general, unconscious agreement that a majority of people adhere to. This free giving of the Victorian Era is mirrored today; todays homeless are given ‘alms’ of food. The same apparent problems of a hundred years ago, remain with us today (Hall, T. 2005).

It makes me feel good that I’m giving something back.”

When we look at gifting free food to strangers (Hall, T. 2005) and having spoken to volunteers, it is often a throw-away comment that appears generic “we want to give something back to those less fortunate.” It would appear that these kind hearted individuals that give their time and food do so for no return, however, I would suggest the Shalin’s Balanced Reciprocity is being portrayed here, where the giver and recipient, during the exchange of food, receive near immediate gratification (Shalin, M. 1978). The gift exchange has been balanced and that both parties have a feeling of pleasure, one while eating, the other while providing their hot food.

Considering Mauss and the Spirit of the Gift, it can be an easy link between the gifting of food and Mauss’ ‘free gift,’ however, on closer examination we see that the gift promotes gratification in the giver and receiver, making it a balanced exchange. My interpretation of Mauss is that it was a philosophical ideal, where the spirit of the free gift has been decayed over time in a modern, capitalist society, that free gifting does not truly exist today (Mauss, M. 2011).

It is absolutely disgusting that it’s nearly 2020 and people are scavenging for food like animals.”

When we examine the soup kitchens history and it’s ever increasing demand since its initial set up four years ago, one must also delve into the relationship of the homeless and the Welfare State to investigate any correlations as to why the volunteers felt the need to support these homeless individuals. When questioned about any possible links, volunteers presented the idea that somehow, these homeless people had fallen through the safety net of the Welfare State and so, in response to the ever-growing numbers of homelessness, the soup kitchen was formed.

Food poverty in the UK has increased generally, with 13million people living in poverty (Caplan,P. 2015) and various political parties have interpreted the growing number of foodbanks and the likes, in various ways. Some would suggest that volunteers represent all that is great in Great Britain and that they are part of a ‘Bigger Society,” a shining example of local people helping those that are less fortunate in their community. “I’m immensely proud of what we are achieving here.” There is a ‘Third Way’ to support these people that the state believes should be developed further (Caplan, P. 2015). This is further reinforced with Muehlebach’s research “The Moral Neoliberal” where she discovered local volunteer groups in Italy supporting people living in poverty as Italy moved further away from state and welfare provisions to a more individualised political era (Muehlebach, A. 2012). This third way of supporting vulnerable people has allowed the political ruling party in our capitalist society to take a step back from the front line (Caplan, P. 2012). While there are foodbanks and soup kitchens still available to support these marginalised groups of vulnerable people, the safety net of the welfare state remains as it is with holes big enough for some individuals to slip through and be caught by the volunteers. During my research, the new benefits system, Universal Credit, was mentioned a number of times. These volunteers would hear stories night after night of payment delays and sanctions which have all contributed to many individuals resorting to the soup kitchen to survive. Austerity mentioned, volunteers directly linking Universal Credit, Austerity and a changing welfare state that has had a huge negative influence on individuals relying on these volunteers.

Meuhlebach suggests that politicians in Italy think much the same as this, although describes the volunteer workforce as “immaterial but valuable.” It is free so costs the state nothing, the volunteers “redeem” Italy with an image of empathetic solidarity and comradeship, supporting a community who rely on the support, hiding the anomie of instability during a changing Italy (Muehlebach, A. 2012).

The counter argument of this bigger picture portrayal, lies with opposition members of parliament, where they elucidate the argument of the rise of volunteers and soup kitchens as a “stain on the conscience of a nation” (Caplan, P. 2015). Quite the opposite of such previous praise, opposition parties believe that current government policies and the welfare state have let these marginalised people down and this is a damning reflection of society in general. This particular type of interpretation was evident in various volunteer responses during interviews and on some of the questionnaires. Generally, they agreed that the safety net that is supposed to be in place to help these people, seem to have failed and that, in 2019, volunteers should not be feeding hungry, homeless people on the street. Further reinforced in Caplans’ report where volunteers also described the use of foodbanks as “unacceptable in 21st century Britain” (Caplan, P. 2015). Volunteers at our soup kitchen exclaimed that their group was almost like a plaster on a deep wound wasn’t being healed through help desperately needed through the local authority, it hid a multitude of symptoms but was not being mended completely.

However, when questioned about their own volunteering roles, they spoke of huge admiration and pride of each other. “I think, without us, there would be a lot more people dead along Weymouth seafront, that’s for sure!”

As mentioned in the introduction, Weymouth lies within an area of outstanding natural beauty but, behind the beautiful scenery, Weymouth is a deprived area with 40% of children living in poverty within a stone’s throw of its beautiful golden beaches (Nicholls, T. 2019). Weymouth is at the bottom of the index for social mobility, meaning that the life chances for anyone born into poverty, the likelihood is that they will remain in poverty throughout their lives (Nicholls, T. 2019). Some answers from the volunteers via the questionnaires were returned almost word-for-word with previous articles that already exist about food poverty. Rising levels of unemployment, low incomes and the continuously rising food and fuel costs (Cooper, N and Dumpleton, S. 2013) were also some of the explanations given to the rising reliance of the soup kitchen in Weymouth. Again, Cooper and Dumpleton (2013) reiterate a failing safety net of the Welfare state that goes hand in hand with the driving demand and reliance of soup kitchens mentioned over and over again. Respondents to my questionnaire also made clear correlations between a welfare state that is appearing to fail some in our society.

Another article that makes the link between economic recession and food poverty, strengthening Nicholls evidence of rising poverty in deprived Weymouth, is Dowler and Lambie-Mumford- How can Households eat in Austerity? Here they talk about various outcomes to the governments austerity cuts and the evidence suggests that the more deprived the area is, the more financial loss is felt within the community (Beatty, C and Fothergill, S. 2014) during austerity. This sees the gap between the rich and the poor widening and relegates Weymouth and Portland to bottom place for social mobility throughout the entire UK (Nicholls, T. 2019). “Our local conservative MP, sat on his vast private estate, should come down here one night and actually see what’s going on, see how these people are struggling to stay alive.”

My sample group of questionnaires have reinforced literature that already exists about volunteers and soup kitchens and the reasons they believe soup kitchens exist. Food poverty is well established throughout the UK but it appears to be addressed more so by individual volunteer organisations than by mainstream, national government procedures and initiatives.

Research Aims and Methods

The soup kitchen is run 3 nights a week, from 1930-2030, set up straight onto camping tables from the boot of a volunteer’s car. I quickly realised that it was a very quick turnaround, dishing up, feeding them and packing it all away again, leaving very little time to speak while “on-the-job” as the few volunteers were busy and the service users demanded so much of everyone’s attention. Every Thursday throughout November and early December I volunteered too, simply because there aren’t enough volunteers so I became part of the numbers to help it run smoothly and safely, not so much observing and asking questions, but right in the thick of it, providing another pair of hands. I managed to ask a few questions but quickly realised that it simply wasn’t the time or place to gather information. Little snippets of information were gained but without a semi-structured interview, my ethnographic data was mostly full of fieldnotes gathered in the Malley and Hawkins fieldwork techniques, over an eight-week period I visited 10 times.

I then invited people to complete a short 10minute survey which gave me little return and that I needed to chase up. Realising that this was not fruitful either, I proposed another set of more relevant questions, deliberately seeking out answers as to whether there was a political correlation between homelessness and volunteering (O’Reily, K. 2012) requesting help to answer these questions via the Facebook page; Help for Homeless- Weymouth. I – became inundated with volunteers wanting to provide the answers I was seeking. I met up with six separate volunteers over coffee for an hour at a time so that we worked our way through the questions together and I was able to take notes. Two other questionnaires were returned vis email. O’Reily (2012) talks about a voyage of discovery during ethnographic research and with each brief involvement with the volunteers of the soup kitchen, little oddments of information were being gathered and added continuously to my fieldnotes. A constant to and froing of participant observation, writing notes, reflecting gathering and reading literature alongside my volunteering role to build a bigger, better picture. O’Reily (2012) calls this “iterative-inductive;” nothing gathered is separate, everything is linked.


This project has investigated the motivations behind volunteers and to extract a link between political policies and any failings within the welfare system that has directly resulted in the growing demand of the soup kitchen. Having read the literature, I wanted to know if these volunteers shared the same opinion. Small quotes that I have interjected began to suggest that these volunteers had indeed made the link themselves between how these people had come to rely on soup kitchens and they too were saddened and shocked that the numbers of people using them were continuously growing. Nearly every volunteer I met reflected with “there but for the grace of God, go I.” This soup kitchen reflects an ever-growing demand of marginalised, vulnerable people that have been excluded from mainstream society after numerous failings within the welfare state and these volunteers that provide compassion without judgement and expectation have caught these exposed and destitute people as they have literately hit rock bottom. This third way of supporting people in a rich, capitalist society, is working, but it remains a temporary plaster, perilously re-packing open, sore wounds night after night, without intervention from the state to enable a complete remedy or repair for a more secure future.

Weymouth is a small seaside town with a relatively small homeless population, but we are one town of hundreds and scenes like this are replicated throughout the UK. Volunteers are an army of unsung heroes who are providing immediate, life saving care and warmth to an ever-increasing number of individuals who are living their lives at rock bottom.

Reference List

Beatty, C and Fothergill, S. 2014. The Local and Regional Impact of the UK’s Welfare Reforms. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society [online]. Available at https://shura.ac.uk/8917

Caplan, P. 2015. Big Society or Broken Society. Food Banks in the UK. Anthropology Today [online]. 32 (1).

Cooper, N and Dumpleton, S. 2013. Walking the Breadline. The Scandal of Food Poverty in 21st Century Britain. [Online]. Church Action on Poverty. Manchester.

Dowler, E and O’Connor, D. 2011. Social Sciences and Medicine. Rights based Approaches to Addressing Food Poverty and Increasing Food Insecurity in Ireland and the UK. 74 (1)

Hall, T. 2005. Not Miser not Monk: Begging, Benefits and the Free Gift. Sociological Research Online. [online] 10(4). Available at https://www.socresonline.org.uk/1014/hall.html>

Mauss, M. 1978. The Gift. Mansfield. Martino.

Mintz, S and Du Bois, C. 2002. Annual Review of Anthropology. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. [online]. Volume 31

Muehelebach, A. 2012. The Moral Neoliberal Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. London. University of Chicago Press.

O’Reilly, K. 2012. Ethnographic Methods. 2nd Edition. Routledge. Oxon.

Rose, G. 2016. Visual Methodologies an Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. 4th Edition. Sage. London.

Sahlin, M. 1978. Stone Age Economics. 3rd Edition. London. Tavistock Publications.

Stedman-Jones, G. 1992. Outcast London; A study into the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society. 2nd Edition. London. Verso Books.

Learna De Andrade


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