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Bringing equality down to earth: food, identity reduction and the five dimensions of well-being

L’égalité en actes: alimentation, réduction identitaire et les cinq dimensions du bien-être 
Christopher McAll


Social inequality operates through the reduction of identity, with individual life stories, current life situations and hopes for the future often collapsed into a single, generally negatively connoted characteristic attributed to the group with whom the individual is identified. If such reductionism is part of the way in which inequalities are reproduced in everyday interactions, then the making of equality may have its source in similarly situated interactions, based on a non-reductionist global approach. In the present text, I look at an experimentation of such a global approach, with a particular emphasis on well-being and the relationship to food. The fivefold definition of well-being proposed is based on a research project on seniors and home-support workers in Montreal, and is applied, in connection with food, to an experimental Housing-First project on homelessness, and in relation to security, sociability, nourishment, freedom and routines and places.

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1The reduction of identity is a central mechanism in the maintenance of relations of social inequality. Whether in the case of the dehumanization of colonized peoples, the racial profiling of minority youth by the police, the stigmatization of young mothers as incompetent parents or the perception of older people as so many bodies needing to be washed, housed and fed, social inequality operates through the reduction of identity (McAll 2017). Individual identities, life stories, current life situations and hopes for the future are collapsed into a single, generally negatively connoted characteristic attributed to the group with whom the individual is identified. Discourses of naturalization – in the form of sexism, racism and ageism, for example – are put into practice in the localized interactions in which society reproduces itself. If society is effectively produced in such interactions, then alternative ways of being and doing may have their source in similarly situated interactions based on other principles, multiplied across the surface of social life and potentially catalyzing change in the way suggested by Myrdal (1944).

  • 1 The project on home-support was funded by the Fondation Jeanne-Mance of the Centre de santé et des (...)

2In the present text, I look at the impact of a non-reductionist or global approach in public service and community sector interventions, with a particular emphasis on well-being and the relationship to food. While having echoes in the broader literature on well-being, the conceptualization of well-being proposed here is based on a research project on seniors and home-support workers in Montreal (Fournier et al. 2013 ; McAll et al. 2014), and in relation to food, on the experience of homeless participants in a Montreal Housing-First project (McAll 2019a, 2019b ; MacNaughton et al. 2016 ; Latimer et al. 2014).1 In the first part of the text that follows, I develop the notion of identity reduction (and expansion) in relation to the literature on inequality and prejudice, before looking at the idea of a global approach, with a particular emphasis on well-being and food. A fivefold definition of well-being is then presented on the basis of the research with seniors and is subsequently applied, in connection with food, to the experimental project on homelessness, and more specifically, in relation to security, sociability, nourishment, freedom and routines and places.

Identity reduction

3The main types of socially unequal relations tend to operate through identity reduction, with individuals disappearing behind the negative traits associated with their different identities. For example, the collective appropriation of resources and the exclusion of others from access to those resources, tends to be accompanied by the stigmatization of the excluded “other”. “Cultural difference” can be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to being a part of the excluding group (rather than just a problem of adaptation), while “natural difference”, in the form of sexism or racism, can take on specific forms associated with misogyny, xenophobia, demonization, or criminalization, depending on period and context.

4A common theme is the glorification of the appropriating group and the denigration of the “other” as malevolent, scheming and dangerous, with, for example, the historical dehumanization of subject populations throughout the colonial world (Memmi 1957 ; Fanon 1961 ; Saïd 1979), and the contemporary criminalization of racialized minority youth in Europe and North America (Hall et al. 1978 ; McAll et al. 2010 ; Jobard et al. 2012). DuBois in the 1890s, sees black men and women in the United States as being “shut out” from the world of the whites by a “vast veil” (DuBois 1890 : 2), while the “one idea” of Aryan racial superiority and the subhuman status of the Jews is dutifully and willingly enacted at all levels of the Nazi State during the Shoah (Arendt 1951, 1965). When bodies and minds are appropriated within territories to work the land, transform other raw materials, or provide domestic, sexual or other services, identity tends to be reduced to the “natural” characteristics of the body or the mind that justify such appropriation. Different kinds of bodies (those of women, slaves, colonized peoples and manual laborers, for example) can be seen as “made” by nature for the work they are required to do.

5In all such cases, excluded and subject populations tend to be denied the fully-fledged humanity reserved to the dominant, with 19th century social Darwinists placing well-educated European upper and upper-middle class males (referred to by Mill (1871) as “ superior persons ”) at the top end of an evolutionary hierarchy in terms of intelligence and morality, with aboriginal Australian women at the bottom, scarcely capable, according to Darwin, of reflecting on their own existence or counting beyond four (Darwin 1871). Such identity reduction (and expansion, given the fully-fledged humanity reserved to the dominant) remains a central mechanism in the maintenance of social inequality, being reinforced by the media (Guillaumin 1972), reproduced by the school-system (Labov 1972) and articulated through neutral-sounding official public discourse (Sykes 1988). It can also, in the case of women, be part of the practice of psychiatry, reducing women and the complexity of their lived experience to preconceived diagnoses (Smith 1990), or to not being heard in the mental health justice system (Bernheim et al. 2014).

6Identity reduction is especially manifest in the case of those described (euphemistically) as “seniors”. They can have the impression of being increasingly invisible, of being no longer present at the center of social life, with their identity reduced to the declining physical and mental incapacity that is projected on to the category as a whole, whatever the actual state of their bodies and minds might be (Clément et al. 1991). Seniors living at home can be seen as just bodies to be maintained in some degree of health, while being washed, clothed and fed. In reducing the individual to a more or less functional body, service-provision can thus contribute to the identity-reduction that is part of ageism (Fournier 2011).

7Being on welfare or social assistance is another example where a variety of population types, differentiated according to age, gender, regional and national origin, language, religion, work experience, health and a variety of other characteristics can come to be seen as being “all the same”, whether that sameness is attributed to the lack of a work ethic or some other collective trait with negative associations. Where such populations are concentrated in certain areas or types of housing, that too can become part of the reduced identity, with everyone in a social housing complex, for example, being seen as in some way equally “worthless” and as having demonstrated their “unemployability” (Wilson 1987; McAll et al. 2001). Such identity reduction comes into play in the cumulative interactions of daily life, in the encounters with welfare agents, doctors, employers, landlords, family members, neighbors, bank tellers and the other actors whose attitudes, gestures, decisions and deeds contribute to the making of people’s life-paths.

8Nowhere is identity more reduced and invisibility more “visible” than in the case of the “homeless”, a catch-all term that itself conceals the wide range of populations who can find themselves without a home (McAll 2019c). The feeling of not being recognized as a person, with one’s own life story, present conditions and hopes for the future, can take on particular intensity in the case of food provision. In competitive individualistic societies, where material and social success are supposedly based on individual merit, having to go to a food-bank because of inadequate wages or “dependency” on social assistance can be seen as a mark of failure, the associated shame reinforced by the judgment and apparent merit of those providing the food (Berti et al. 2017). The moral high ground occupied by givers – well exemplified in the moralizing and judgmental underpinnings that are still to be found in the provision of food-aid in France and elsewhere (Rétière et al. 2018) – illustrates the way in which the reduction of the identities of receivers to perceived negative traits contributes to the multifaceted and positive “fullness” of the identities of those doing the giving. Being a recipient of food-aid, whatever the intentions of those providing it, tends to reduce those receiving food to so many mouths to be fed and to hunger as their principal defining characteristic (McAll et al. 2015).

Food, freedom and well-being

9Given the centrality of food production, distribution, preparation and consumption in the making of society, the question arises as to whether collective action around food can be transformed from identity-reduction and charitable giving to a key element in the creation of relationships based on individual (and collective) freedom and well-being. If the reduction of identity plays a central role in the localized and routine reproduction of inequalities across the surface of social life, then substituting recognition of wholeness or fully-fledged humanity for identity-reduction could be a catalyst for social change.

10Against a historical background in which the call for the reinforcement of individual and collective well-being as a social goal has been long present – including, in the nineteenth century, such authors as Humboldt (1809), Mill (1859) and Marshall (1890) – and in a post Second-World-War context in which the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Townsend et al. 1982 : 42), the notion of “well-being” remains central as a social goal and way of understanding “wholeness”. Chambers, for example, underlines the “need to go beyond poverty to well-being”. In his view, northern “experts” tend to have a “reductionist” view of poverty in the “global South”, seeing it as “income poverty” linked to lack of employment. In the case of village communities in India “poor people” have a more “complex”, “holistic” and “diverse” understanding, and one that is both “experiential” and “unquantified” (Chambers 1995 : 204). From his point of view, “going beyond poverty to well-being” means listening to the people directly concerned and involving them in decision-making, just as Allué (1999) and Jacobs (1961) make similar arguments with respect to the treatment of chronic health conditions and urban planning respectively.

11A similar point is made by Stanley et al. in relation to working with seniors. Improving or maintaining well-being can be the primary professional goal in health and social service intervention, but there is, according to them, little agreement on what well-being means, and seniors themselves are rarely consulted on what it might mean for them. Whatever definitions are ultimately arrived at, they need to be “grounded in the reality of human experience” (Stanley et al. 2003 : 58). Whaley Hammell et al. come to a similar conclusion, suggesting a definition of well-being as including a “state of contentment or harmony”, “emotional and spiritual health”, “personal and economic security”, “self-worth”, a “sense of belonging”, “opportunities to engage in meaningful and purposeful occupations”, and a “sense of hope” (Whaley Hammell et al. 2012 : 387). Well-being for them also includes “opportunities for self-determination”, bringing up the long-running connection between individual freedom and well-being in the liberal tradition, with Sen (1999) underlining the impossibility of choosing to “lead the life one wants to live” when the lack of means and contextual constraints deprive people of the “capabilities” necessary to make choices and thus exercise freedom.

12From a sociological perspective, Hall and Lamont (2009 : 13) see well-being as including “physical and psychological health, material sustenance, and the sense of dignity and belonging that comes with being a recognized member of a community”. It is this latter dimension of well-being, according to Lamont (2019), that is lacking in an increasingly divided society such as the United States. Income needs to be less central in defining “who matters”, with more weight placed on “being” rather than “having”, on “moral traits, such as demonstrating solidarity and dignity” (Lamont 2019 : 685). Before proposing a definition of well-being based on our own research with seniors, it is necessary to look more closely at connections made in the literature between well-being and food.

Well-being and food

13As in the case of Chambers’ critique of economic reductionism in the field of international development, the UN/FAO insists on the importance of complementing statistical data on food insecurity with people’s own experience and their “subjective understanding of well-being”, giving rise to the UN/FAO’s own “Food insecurity experience scale” based on “availability, access, utilization and stability” (UN/FAO 2019 : 24,74). Historically, the calculation of food calorie intake has been a central component in poverty studies and the identification of poverty thresholds, with Rowntree’s house-to-house studies in York in the late 1800s and 1930s finding an echo in the arguments of D’Orico et al. (2019 : 181) who calculate a global “food hunger threshold” of 2407 food calories per capita per day and a “food hunger well-being threshold” of 3062 calories, beyond which individuals do not just satisfy hunger but can be said to be in a state of “food well-being”.

14While the subjective experience of food is indeed part of such a “food hunger well-being threshold”, there is nonetheless the risk of reducing food well-being to a quantitative measure that can be responded to by a quantitative response, thereby failing to take into account the multiple dimensions of well-being mentioned in the literature and the multiple ways in which food production, distribution, preparation and consumption can be part of well-being. According to Burnett et al., for example, the domination of quantitative methods in the sociology of food has meant that the experience of food in everyday life and the richness of non-academic knowledge have been neglected and that the field itself has remained relatively undeveloped, with some exceptions, – Bourdieu’s notion of “good taste” in food consumption and class distinction being a case in point (Bourdieu 1979).

15It is here that work on collective food projects suggests multiple ways in which different kinds of involvement in the production and preparation of food can allow people to open out into new areas of personal and community development. In the San Francisco prison Garden Project, for example, according to Pudup (2008 : 1239), by nurturing plants, prisoners “nurture” their own “subjectivity”, distribute food to the homeless, senior citizens and families, and become, in the process, “citizen subjects of resistance to neoliberalism”. Different kinds of garden projects can in some cases, reinforce gentrification and privileged access to the land (Marche 2015), but can also transform the experience of specific populations, such as cancer patients, when faced with suffering and isolation (St.Clair et al. 2017), or create a space where people diagnosed with an intellectual disability provide each other with mutual support, share life experiences, and discover the pleasures of cooking in a community kitchen, as observed by Handfield (2017).

16Such examples of alternative practices based on the recognition of wholeness and reciprocity rather than on the reduction of identity, take on special significance when associated with the decision of public authorities and institutions to break with industrial agriculture and transnational monopolistic suppliers of processed food and acquire food directly based on local, organic, bio-intensive agriculture (Braun et al. 2018 ; Stahlbrand 2019). Creating public sector demand for local, organic food production and distribution can create opportunities for the participation of low-income groups in food-related activities and reinforce social justice (Hinrichs 2007), as well as possibilities for the development of civic agriculture and the site-specific sharing of knowledge (Lyson 2007). In many such connections between the production and consumption of food and well-being, there is also the pleasure and satisfaction of reconnecting with the land and working with plant and animal life, while enhancing the quality of the food produced (Barber 2014).

Seniors, housing and the five dimensions of well-being

  • 2 This project was based on interviews with 10 home-support workers who were invited to present the p (...)

17The notion of well-being thus emerges as central in a non-reductionist approach, and our project involving home-support workers and seniors receiving home care in Montreal allowed us to identify five dimensions of well-being as seen from the perspective of interviewees, dimensions that reflect those identified in the literature, but which seek to provide a more precise and usable experience-based definition (McAll et al. 2014 ; Fournier et al. 2013 ; Fournier 2011).2

18The first of these dimensions, not necessarily given here in order of priority, relates to the material conditions of life: income and expenses, housing conditions, material possessions, material support from friends and family. Some have difficulty getting by financially; others are more comfortably off. At one end of the spectrum, a woman is interviewed in her well-furnished, spacious, fifth-floor apartment with a balcony, views over the town, and on-site nursing services. At the other, a woman lives in cramped social housing with not enough room to move round in her wheel-chair without bumping into the furniture. Social housing can be either well or poorly maintained. One woman complains of the peeling paintwork, and the curtains that need repair, and of her frustration at being no longer able to do anything about it.

19Social relationships emerge as a second fundamental dimension of well-being. Family members may do the grocery, wash clothes, clean the apartment, and neighbors and caretakers can be on hand to intervene in an emergency. One woman lives with her son who takes her out for walks, while a man with respiratory problems finds a new lease of life by providing a home for his homeless nephew. But there are also cases of isolation, of the widower who puts out an additional cup when he lays the table, just in case someone might turn up, or a woman who appears to have few social connections and is suspected of not eating sufficiently. On a recent visit, her home-support worker is pleased to see that some crumbs have been left on the table. Others, living in residential homes, can complain of having to live too close to “old” people whom they would not normally choose to live with, but they can also appreciate contacts made and the social activities on offer.

  • 3 Quotations in the text are translated from the original French.

20Home-support workers themselves become part of this world of social relations, sometimes coming to occupy a key place in the lives of the people visited. Even if their job description is restricted to the services they are supposed to provide (such as helping with a bath or a shower), coming into the intimacy of the home means being received, accepting a cup of tea or coffee, catching up with the person’s news since the last visit or bringing news from the outside world. It can also mean being open to reciprocity. One care-receiver says that he would happily forgo his shower just to listen to the support-worker’s stories about his escapades with horses, while a support-worker tells of his pleasure in helping a man who sings while being showered. The social dimension is a central part of the care as viewed from both sides of the relation, allowing the receivers of care to feel that they “exist, that they are “alive, that they are treated “almost as equals” and are not reduced to “ageing, “illness” and “loss”.3

21Alongside material conditions of life and social relations, there is also physical and mental health, well-being in body and mind. Receiving home-care in the first place implies that people are no longer able to look after themselves. The goal can be to remain active as long as possible, to insist on going out on cold winter days in spite of breathing problems, walking in the park, going to the library, playing the piano, painting, not wanting to “give up” or “become paralyzed”. Support-workers can define their role as being to “accompany the person in what they are able to do” as long as possible, but they are also witnesses to gradual decline and the growing frustration at no longer being able to repaint walls, repair curtains or clear the leaves off a balcony. Such frustration can wear down the spirit, as in the case of a man who has difficulty looking out of the window and seeing people walking outside.

22If well-being in body and mind is directly affected by material conditions and social relations, it is also related to a fourth dimension of well-being, the freedom to make one’s own decisions. Nowhere is such freedom more at issue than when family members, support-workers or professionals consider that making their own decisions can put people at risk. One man insists on climbing on to a chair to change a light bulb, at considerable risk to himself according to the support-worker, given his physical condition. Giving up such activities, however, can have a negative effect on quality of life, and she cannot prevent him from doing it anyway. In another case, the support-worker is no longer allowed by her superiors to accompany a man on his weekly walk to the corner of the street and back – the high point in his week – given the risk of a fall. Maintaining the freedom to decide and take risks as long as possible is a recurring theme in the interviews, one man enjoying roaming around the city-center in his electric wheel-chair which he illegally recharges from an external bank wall-socket.

23These dimensions of well-being are all part of maintaining pleasure in life, of “existing” in the eyes of others, or being treated (almost) as an “equal”, just as they can contribute to ill-being if one feels reduced to “old age”, “illness” and “loss”. They are part of ongoing life-stories, of daily and weekly routines, of the time past and the time to come that are an integral part of the stories told in interview. If the feeling of “existing” in the present in the eyes of others is essential to well-being, memory is also part of that present, being surrounded by furniture, photos, paintings, and other objects from the past, going back in the interview over the first encounter with a lost husband, or to living in the country. The past can also intrude more directly into the present, one woman having received visitors the day before with whom she had played music at her family’s lakeside chalet in her younger days, “I’m not just what you see today”. Several people find pleasure and purpose in life through their children, looking forward (in one case) to the annual summer outing to the island where the family has always gone on holiday. Another gets “a feeling of eternity” through painting. In these memories, plans and daily routines, time is inextricably linked to place, whence a fifth dimension of well-being in time and place, in which identity and belonging are grounded.

The food component in a global approach to well-being

24These five dimensions of well-being, associated with the material conditions of life, social relations, body and mind, freedom to decide, and time and place were applied in the analysis of the qualitative narrative interviews conducted within the experimental At Home (Housing-First) project with homeless people in Montreal (McAll 2019a, 2019b ; MacNaughton et al. 2016 ; Latimer et al. 2014). In this case, 469 homeless people with mental-health issues were randomly divided into experimental and control groups. The 285 people in the experimental group were given rapid access to independent housing and accompanied by health and social-service support teams, while the control group of 184 people continued to receive “treatment as usual” (living in the street, shelters or different kinds of temporary housing, receiving regular health and social services). Qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with a randomly selected sample of 1 in 10 (46 people) at baseline and 18 months, with follow-up interviews with 33 participants after the end of the project at 48 months.

  • 4 The coding of the interviews is based on whether or not, in the opinion of the interviewee and on t (...)

25In the analysis, I identified 23 aspects of their experience that emerge as key in the interviews from the respondents’ point of view, in terms of their experience and everyday concerns. These can be grouped together according to the five dimensions of well-being we identified in the project on home-support for seniors: material conditions of life (income and housing conditions), social relations, (friendship and solitude, relations with family, landlords, neighbors and care-givers, feelings of trust and distrust, security and violence, respect of intimacy, involvement in social and leisure activities, work experience), body and mind (physical and mental health, suicidal tendencies, medication, consumption of drugs and alcohol), freedom to decide, (autonomy in decision-making), and time and place (rhythms of daily life, stressfulness, boredom, being at peace, development of future projects). Given that these interviews are open and semi structured, the information provided on these five dimensions of well-being is discursive and contextualized, being set within an individual’s global account of his or her current situation.4

Food and well-being at baseline

26At base-line, people interviewed in the sample (one-third of whom are women), share a number of characteristics that place them at a low level on our five dimensions of well-being : (1) material conditions of life : they are in extreme poverty and have few material possessions ; (2) social relations : they are largely cut off from family and friendship ties, subject to prejudice and a feeling of non-existence in the eyes of the world ; (3) body and mind : they are in poor physical and mental health exacerbated by their living conditions, with high rates of substance abuse and dependency ; (4) freedom to decide : they can have some degree of autonomy in being “outside” the system and its rules, but can be largely dependent on charity, subject to strict timetables and regulations in homeless shelters, and little possibility of “choice” in their everyday lives ; and (5), as far as well-being in time and place is concerned, have memories of childhood abuse (70% of all respondents), a high incidence of depression and despair, the presence of suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts (47% of the men, 87% of the women) and little hope expressed concerning the future.

27Food, as recounted in the interviews at the beginning of the project, is acquired on a day-to-day basis either through begging, meals provided in shelters, or from soup-kitchens, food-banks or other charitable food-outlets. Although people tend to say that they have little difficulty in obtaining food – one just has to be prepared to beg or to be at the right place at the right time – the quality is generally considered to be poor, although there are exceptions. A shelter for women is said to have “very good food”, including a choice of main meal, desserts and cheese, and a monthly food hand-out in one of the churches is referred to as “excellent”, with fresh bread, meat and “good” soup. Another church provides peanut-butter sandwiches every morning and soup at lunchtime, neither of which are considered to be adequate. Bought food tends to be acquired in fast-food outlets – among the few places that tolerate the homeless as customers –, and the resulting surfeit of hamburgers and doughnuts can be seen as hard for the digestive system over the long term. Fast-food outlets are not just places to eat, but also places to spend the night after the metro closes, especially in winter when temperatures are below zero. A respondent tells of having to drink coffee and eat apple-pies all night in order to justify his presence in one such outlet without falling asleep. On a recent night, he drank ten coffees and ate four apple-pies between 11pm and 4am. When he finally fell asleep and was woken by staff telling him “Don’t go to sleep”, he told them that he wasn't sleeping, “just thinking”.

28Begging in order to buy food, queuing up for charitable food hand-outs, and whiling away the time in fast-food outlets, are thus a central part of the everyday lives described at base-line by respondents. In terms of well-being, the material conditions of life associated with extreme poverty mean constant food insecurity, reinforced by money spent on alcohol and substance-abuse. Receiving food (or begging to acquire food) is also the principal relationship that most respondents have with others, a relationship marked by a feeling of shame and worthlessness. The food given or obtained is often considered to be of poor quality in nutritional terms, and respondents have little freedom of choice as to what they eat (or when they eat, as far as charitable food-providers are concerned). Daily lives are also largely constructed around the times and places where food is provided, with access to a bed for the night and a meal in a shelter sometimes meaning queuing up from 3 o’clock in the afternoon. In the case of these respondents, well-being (or ill-being) is thus largely defined through food, with the relationship to food (and to other people through food) contributing to the sense of ill-being. It is also a relationship to food and to people that is specific to the condition of being homeless.

After eighteen months

29Eighteen months later, for the experimental group, things have changed. Not surprisingly perhaps, given rapid access to a furnished apartment of their choice, a $400 supplement to their monthly welfare helping them to pay the rent, and intensive, non-judgmental case-management on the part of specially set-up clinical support teams, their sense of well-being has notably improved. When compared with the control group, they are more likely to say that they have a greater sense of peace, that their mental health has improved, that they consume less drugs and alcohol and take less prescription medicines, that they have made new friends, remade contact with the family, have become involved in social activities and are developing new projects. Members of the control group, on the other hand, are more likely to say that their use of alcohol and drugs has increased, that they live in fear of violence, that they have suicidal thoughts and that their physical health has declined. The situation is more ambiguous for those with high mental health needs and for some women in the experimental group, given the exposure of the latter to male violence.

30The improvement in subjective well-being is closely linked to food. Having one’s own furnished apartment, complete with standard household appliances, and receiving a rent-subsidy that makes money available for food, means that people can go to the supermarket or the local grocery like anybody else and have some choice in what they want to eat. Beforehand, according to one respondent, she just had to eat what she was given, but now “I can buy what I want […] lots of fruit and vegetables […] and chocolate as well.” One man says that “cooking is all new to him.” He doesn’t do anything complicated, just “pizzas, pasta, club-sandwiches”, but he does make his own “delicious” cereal with oats, milk and maple syrup that he leaves overnight in the fridge. Another man plans his meals for the week, takes his shopping list to the grocery, and makes quantities of spaghetti sauce, vegetable soup and meat-loaves that he stores in the freezer, “it’s almost an exploit, since I have a small kitchen”. He is happy to be able to avoid food-banks, “just the fact of feeding myself is better for my health […] when you have to get food from food-banks, you just eat what they give you and often you don’t feel well afterwards, you get indigestion.” Another respondent has discovered a Chinese grocery where everything costs less. He buys “Chinese muffins with blackberries, rice, peppered steaks, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, ground pork and chicken thighs with hardly any fat under the skin.” Not everyone is quite so independent, given financial constraints once the rent is paid, and particularly towards the end of the month when the money has run out and they have to resort to the “Sisters of Charity” or some other source of free or subsidized food.

31If having one’s own apartment and being able to plan meals, do the shopping, cook for oneself, and eat when one feels like it are all part of a new sense of well-being (in terms of material conditions, food-value, freedom to make one’s own decisions and relation to time and place), they also contribute to the rebuilding of relationships. For one woman, there are three things in particular that have brought her “happiness” since the project began: the arrival of her cat, the moment when she first started putting her clothes in the chest of drawers, and when she was able to invite people over for a meal. Another woman says that she now has enough money to take food to her sister’s place where they cook together. Others limit their first contacts with the family after a long period of non-communication, to meeting them over a meal in a restaurant. The feeling of shame (for the past) is particularly present when remaking contact with their own children – 41% of the men being fathers and 75% of the women, mothers.

32For some, the transition remains difficult. For example, one respondent is both relieved to be no longer living in a shelter, constantly surrounded by large numbers of people, “you end up in a rage against everybody”, and yet feels isolated in his apartment: “It’s eating alone that I find the most difficult […] You feel less motivated to cook anything.” For one woman, having her own apartment has exposed her to a relationship with a violent partner: “To tell you the truth, I feel more secure on the street than in my apartment. The other day I was on St. Catherine’s street with some homeless people, where they sell hamburgers, […] they protected me and spoke to me. They could see that I wasn’t feeling well. They made me feel good. I even wanted to go back and live on the street.” For the most part though, members of the experimental group tell of a new-found relationship to time and place, with their own food routines at the center of their lives: “[Yesterday morning] I listened to the radio while having my coffee and then had breakfast […] I did a bit of housework and took a shower. Oh yes, and I planted out my tomatoes on the balcony.

Discussion: Food and the five dimensions of well-being

33For the experimental group in the Montreal Housing-First project, there is a radical shift from hunger and shame to a degree of individual freedom and well-being (as experienced by many of the participants) in the short space of 18 months. If the grounds of this shift are to be found in the way in which participants are treated as human beings, provided with housing and a rent supplement, supported in their adaptation to their new situation, helped with physical and mental health problems, and encouraged to rebuild social relationships, their relationship to food is at the heart of the shift.

34The five dimensions of well-being suggested here can serve to identify the main areas in which change occurs. The changing relationship to food is not just part of this process of change – or an indicator of change alongside others –, but in a sense is the change. It is at the heart of material conditions of well-being (food security), an integral part of social life, whether giving rise to shame or solidarity (food sociability), a key element for well-being in body and mind (food nourishment), a primary aspect of being in charge of one’s own life (food freedom) and a central element around which time is lived and space occupied (food routines and places). We could refer to these as the five dimensions of food-well-being but they could also be seen as merely highlighting the centrality of food in the five dimensions of well-being as such.

35If identity-reduction is a central mechanism of social inequality, then changing the relationship to food on the basis of a global understanding of well-being may be a catalyst for more fundamental social change. It can open up a breach towards a degree of individual freedom and well-being for those who would seem to be the furthest removed from any such outcome. The experience with food presented here is limited to the shift from charity and shame to individual planning, purchase, preparation and, to some extent, sharing food with others. The possibilities for improving well-being and enacting social change through different types of alternative food production, distribution, preparation and consumption are evident in the literature.

36St.Clair et al. (2017), in their description of a community garden project for cancer patients, refer to the “trouble with temporary”. The experimental Montreal Housing-First project was also temporary, although participants in the experimental (as opposed to the control groups) seem still to be experiencing beneficial effects at 48 months, two years after the end of the project. There are, however, some exceptions in the case of women subject to male violence and participants with high mental-health needs. The end of support from the project in these latter cases (although the rent supplement was maintained) raises ethical questions as to the running of this type of randomized control trial. The results from the five Canadian sites – Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton – have nonetheless contributed to changing government and regional priorities with respect to homelessness across Canada, with, in Quebec, a proposed revised version of the Housing-First approach that takes into account not only the results of the project itself, but also the variety of populations concerned and the knowledge and practices of community or voluntary sector groups in the area of homelessness (McAll et al. 2019).

37On the basis of the projects presented here with seniors receiving home support and homeless men and women, social equality can be conceptualized as being founded on the recognition of people’s equal value as human beings, on their freedom to make their own decisions, and on reciprocity as the fundamental characteristic of their exchanges with others. Changing the relationship to food based on a global non-reductionist approach to people and the five dimensions of their well-being suggested here can be a way of bringing such abstract ideas of equality down to earth.

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1 The project on home-support was funded by the Fondation Jeanne-Mance of the Centre de santé et des services sociaux Jeanne-Mance and the Montreal Housing-First project by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

2 This project was based on interviews with 10 home-support workers who were invited to present the people visited during the previous 24 hours (27 people in all), the nature of the care provided and the overall situation of the person in terms of well-being, initially in relation to housing conditions. In parallel, 14 seniors receiving home-support were selected at random from the home-support team’s files, and were interviewed at home on the care they receive, their current situation and quality of life, daily routines, relationships, pastimes, and life-stories. The latter interviews were structured around open-ended questions starting from recent events and going gradually back over the days preceding the interview, encouraging interviewees to provide in-depth responses. The research report, in French, Vivre et survivre à domicile, is available at

3 Quotations in the text are translated from the original French.

4 The coding of the interviews is based on whether or not, in the opinion of the interviewee and on the basis of the information provided in the transcripts of the interviews, there had been improvement (since the beginning of the At-Home project for the 18-month interviews and since the 18-month interviews at 48 months) on any one of these 23 aspects of their experience and therefore in the individual’s global well-being. In doing the coding, I make an initial distinction between three possible states. For example, in the opinion of the interviewee and on the basis of the information provided, has mental health improved, worsened or remained the same? In giving the value of /+1/, /–1/ or /0/ for these three possible outcomes for each aspect, I arrive at an overall combined score for each interviewee. A value of /0/ is also given where the information is absent, ambiguous or inconclusive with respect to a given aspect of their experience. The idea is not to do a quantitative analysis of the material as such, but to have a set of approximate measures of the overall evaluation made by the respondents concerning the impact of the project on their lives that can give more consistency to the qualitative analysis, and avoid the impressionistic character that is sometimes to be found in such analyses. For a more detailed analysis of the results at 18 months and 48 months, see McAll 2019a, 2019b.

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Electronic reference

Christopher McAll, Bringing equality down to earth: food, identity reduction and the five dimensions of well-beingAnthropology of food [Online], S15 | 2020, Online since 30 December 2020, connection on 18 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Christopher McAll

sociologist, Université de Montréal, C.P. 6128, Succursale Centre-Ville, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3C 3J7,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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