During the recent snowfall, the Waterloo foodbank tweeted that a woman had walked three miles in the snow to reach them, she was waiting for the outcome of her Universal Credit appeal and living on £34 a week for her family of 3. Between 1st April 2016 and 31st March 2017, The Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children.
There is no question that foodbanks have become part of the landscape of austerity Britain. In this article, a volunteer, who wishes to remain anonymous, asks whether or not foodbanks are the right way to cope with food poverty.
Foodbanks have become part of the landscape of charity in the UK – endlessly cited as the most visible sign of broken Britain, with their workers hailed as saints who stand on the boundary of the challenge of keeping desperate, hungry people alive.
Yet it’s not like that.
Foodbanks are a political tool, and a religious tool also, used by all kinds of people for ends that sometimes don’t have much relevance to the actual issues foodbanks and ‘food hunger’ throws up. And it’s amazing how unsophisticated the analysis of the foodbank phenomena is in Britain. There is a desperate need to uncover the complex tangle of issues, beliefs, prejudices and purposes the sector comprises.
Foodbanks were conceived to address food crises; to manage short term circumstances where people have literally no money and would otherwise starve or beg. The very definition of a food bank is to deal with crisis.
However, they weren’t the first type of service in this field. Soup kitchens and day centres have been giving out food to destitute people, especially the homeless, for hundreds of years – it’s not new to give food to poor people. From experience, I know that over the decades these charities have got very sophisticated in understanding the complex issues they create, about building resilience, enabling dependency, encouraging a begging culture, addressing personal responsibility, and sourcing the food needed.
Many day centres make a charge for cooked food and a token amount for takeaway packs. This is not to make money, just to encourage responsibility and enable real need to be met, ensuring there is enough food, five or more days a week, and reaching those truly in need. There are always particularly desperate people who can’t pay and who can get free food, or earn free food by volunteering.
Foodbanks dispense food to people who may well also access centres like the ones described. They don’t charge for food, although they only give so many boxes and only on referral. But the majority of their users comprise of a wider group of people in poverty.
These new foodbanks emerged late, in the cycles of increased poverty over the decades that saw various economic crises. There weren’t any, possibly, in the great crashes of the early 80’s, as the most destitute continued to go to soup kitchens and the rest…well at the time we had a welfare state.
Cross the Atlantic, and the welfare state has never been the same thing, so when the crash of the early 80s happened, and Reagan savagely cut the welfare that did exist, foodbanks emerged, because people would otherwise have starved. They provided a vital ladder of survival in a welfare system that was already pathetically inadequate. And, this is important, much of the impetus to do so came from faith groups, in a society where faith was more present and such groups played a larger role, from the start, in social care and welfare.
Fast forward in the UK, and the emergence of food banks is a response to the new cuts in welfare and the growing gap between wages and costs, especially housing, rather than food costs. It’s a post 2000 emergence, getting bigger since 2010 but already very much started during previous new Labour administrations. They emerged because of the example in the states; but also because of the growing place of faith groups in the fabric of welfare in the UK. As the UK welfare state was shrunk, faith groups began to fill that space, just as they had in America; and many of them pitched into poverty and the food bank sector
Why do they do this? Why food specifically? It’s not confined to Christianity, but Christian charities have always been active in homelessness, and out of that sector, some foodbanks emerged. Food, and hunger, is central to Christian charity. It echoes the Eucharist’s symbolic feeding, and also references the miracle of feeding the 5000; food is central to religion, and the simplicity of meeting that basic need is somehow particularly associated with the expression of faith through charity. Christians like to meet basic needs, and many millions of people worldwide survive on that charity, compassion and kindness.
Yet in homelessness, along with foodbanks, there has always been the tension between just giving, and also wanting to give a religious message alongside the gift of food.
The problems of foodbanks
In the US, in 1998, Janet Poppendieck published ‘Sweet Charity’, which offered a comprehensive critique of the foodbank movement in the States. Not because the gift of food by committed people was wrong in each case, but as a whole because it was a sticking plaster against a gaping wound, a degrading system that gave no dignity. It allowed the state and indeed corporations, to absolve themselves of the need to pay enough in welfare and wages and the need to have a functioning welfare state. In place of proper wages, benefits, job opportunities and affordable housing, there was charity – the giving of food, and not much else. A non-economic, unsustainable, non–asset building, non-threatening expression, usually of genuine, but possibly misplaced compassion. Nothing a foodbank does addresses economic inequality, nor acts to redress the extraction of money from poor communities for the use of rich people and companies: they are fundamentally unpolitical activities operating from a dependency model (grants, donations) This why someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg applauds them.
Poppendieck highlighted the failure of charities and food banks to challenge the status quo, the unsustainable economics of the system, and the degrading dependency culture foodbanks are at risk of offering. Its sobering reading. But twenty years on, what has changed? Not much, in America, where the foodbank movement carries on much the same and the threats to welfare remain constant, and which is why there is a new book repeating Poppendieck’s message – Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger (MIT Press, 2017). And now we have them in the UK, and they are growing, and in the UK, we don’t seem to see the problem, or heed the warnings we were given from America, not least that foodbanks were never designed to address chronic – i.e. long term poverty, which is the real issue involved. Why?
The need for foodbanks
The most obvious answer to this question is surely, people are hungry. People are poor, and have a limited amount to spend on food, and housing and clothes, and sanitary products, or whatever; its poverty, not food poverty per se, that is the issue. If people could go to a housing bank, they would. They go to food banks because food is on offer. Of all their needs, its food that is ameliorated and available. Crucially, they can get food because people want to give it away. Foodbanks serve purposes for other people. Who?
Politicians need foodbanks. Not the current government, of course, but oppositions do. Foodbanks are a stick to beat the powerful with: ‘look how many people are attending food banks, society is broken, vote for us instead’. Leaders of oppositions can be photographed at the food bank, bonding with the heroic volunteers, it’s as close you can get to association with angels, with all the fairy dust that rubs off.
As I said above, the gift of food is primary to religious charity; its alms in its simplest, most profound sense, and in this gift is purity and value that I do not undermine, and which, as said, has saved millions of lives. However, some faith groups use foodbanks and food provision because it gives them access to a group of people they want to engage with – the poor, the lost, the marginalised, the excluded, and especially for many of the faith groups who occupy the most evangelical end of the spectrum. What better way of getting them into your embrace than to offer food? And offer an Alpha course, or a leaflet about his redeeming power. Most of these organisations are not structured as charities; they are churches, and giving someone some food fills pews or plastic chairs and enables souls to be claimed for God.
It’s heresy to say this, and some will be outraged at the last paragraph. The foodbank movement is so full of people of faith who do offer real help to needy people that critics, including Poppendieck and Fisher have skirted round the God question in the American analyses, for fear of offending and also because of the recognition that there is so much good unleavened by some very bad on offer. I’m not suggesting all Christian foodbanks give food mainly to evangelise; but all Christian foodbanks need foodbanks as a means of expressing their piety.
Even amongst the non-faith foodbanks, there is a need for the continuance of the model. There are foodbanks that adhere to a very fixed model of why people are poor, which still pathologises poverty as a personal failing (along the lines of ultra conservatives like Thatcher – ‘A state of Mind’ – or Ben Carson). They don’t see poverty as inevitable and therefore of expressive of living without god, like some faith groups do, but they see poverty as something which only happens to people who have some sort of personal deficit. In order to qualify for their services, they expect people to sign up for personal development plans or counselling, assuming these interventions will cure poverty. Sorry; poverty may be about those things, but mostly it’s about lack of money because you’re paid £7.50 an hour. For them, poverty is a means to get access to people that they can cure.
Finally, the food and food retail industry needs foodbanks – to offset landfill costs and disposal from the store, but also to enable their hard up employees on the minimum wage to be strong enough to lift the food in the shop to put it on sale, by getting some of the food they throw away for free, not at the shop, but from the very foodbank they support.
It hardly needs mentioning, but consumers of foodbanks need them too – but it’s rare they get a voice – and their needs are complex as to why they use them.
The beginnings of dissent in the UK
Given this stack of people who have an interest in having a thriving foodbank system, the lack of dissenters is not extensive, especially as supposedly radical voices on the left who should be able to see through this issue and realise foodbanks are not the best thing since having no sliced bread, have an interest in seeing them thrive. I have been in a meeting of foodbanks chaired by a local Labour party potential MP candidate who shouted down any critique of the way they operate, and the risk of duplication and wastage within the sector, as she was not concerned by those issues, but only by the ‘geopolitical issues of poverty that gave rise to foodbanks, not the way they are run’.
There are contrary voices, who have read Poppendieck, and Fisher who don’t have a vested interest in seeing bad practice thrive, who want to find alternatives as advanced by Poppendieck and Fisher in their latter chapters, projects which offer skills, training, political campaigning, linked farming projects, attention to empowerment, and true radical action at the micro level to build resources for change (see Harrison 2014, Caplan (2017) In Scotland, a new alliance has been awarded funding to create alternatives to foodbanks. In England, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) represents food providers who do not buy the line that foodbanks are inevitable. And there are people trying to set up projects designed to monetise the transactions of offering food aid to build economic power for poor communities, rather than the exodus of community funds to international corporates through community member buying from mainstream shops. Local community action and activism that is not designed to cure the undeserving poor of their failings, nor offer them god on toast, nor designed to create platforms for aspirant politicians – but projects to do good with, by and for disadvantaged communities.
[i] Harrison J (2014) http://lacuna.org.uk/food-and-health/the-foodbank-dilemma/ and Caplan P (2017) http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/an-anthropological-perspective-on-food-poverty-in-uk/
J. Poppendieck, Sweet Charity, (Penguin, 1998)
A. Fisher Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, (MIT Press, 2017)