By Oliver Crunden

We’re facing a number of crises. But I don’t want to sound alarmist – some are exciting. They could be liberating, destructive, or some combination of both. Bio-genetics, unprecedented technological innovation and the rise of robots all carry this dual potential; shared prosperity and freedom from the drudgery of labour, or the creation of a new ‘underclass’.

With such futuristic possibilities sketching themselves on the horizon, it can be easy to forget the material conditions of the present. We shouldn’t. The UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, currently relies on charitable giving to ensure that the basic subsistence needs of its population are met. Between April and September 2018, 658,048 emergency food packages were given out by the UK’s largest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust. People are going hungry in the UK, and food banks are becoming an ever-more established ‘short-term’ solution.

Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, toured the UK’s network of food banks last December, briefly bringing the topic into the national conversation. Alston stated what has been known for many years now: austerity is a political decision that is having a profoundly damaging impact on British society, and something needs to change. Westminster, however, chose to brush aside Alston’s analysis, too heavily draped in ‘political language’ to deserve engagement. It seems Alston forgot the official party line: that poverty is apolitical. Being poor is the result of behavioural deficiencies: laziness, mismanaged money and too many take-aways. Tory peer Lady Jenkin reminded us of this at the launch of a report examining the causes of food poverty, when she claimed that the root cause is the working class’ lack of culinary expertise.

While Lady Jenkin was demystifying the origins of food poverty, a cross-party group of MPs and interest groups, led by independent MP Frank Field, began turning the wheels of action. In 2015 the All-Party Parliamentary Group laid out a national zero-hunger strategy. The report recommended the creation of a national network, linking food banks, food industry representatives and Government. Its role: to facilitate the redistribution of surplus, donated, or waste food from supermarkets to food banks. Other recommendations included reviewing the impact of zero hours contracts, pausing the rollout of universal credit and examining the adequacy of state benefits. These more substantive recommendations for dealing with the root causes of food poverty were discarded. The Government instead chose a quick, cost-free fix, and handed over responsibility for feeding the hungry to charities. The food bank model has become the UK’s (non-)response to food insecurity.

Students of social policy are taught that politics boils down to “who gets what, when, how”. In our current politics, the poor are gifted food at indeterminate intervals by the good will of their neighbours – a statement that sounds more at home in the 16th Century than the 21st. So why are we here and what are we to do? The UN, through Alston’s report, urged Government to adopt a ‘human rights approach’. This seems appropriate, given that the UK is signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; article 11 of this Covenant obliges the UK to ensure that every citizens’ right to food is satisfied. But let’s leave the legal issues to lawyers far more qualified than me. We’re here for context, to better understand the rise of food banks and their role in the UK today. Context that will help us remember that contrary to the Government’s shallow rebuttal of Prof. Alston, this is an inherently political issue.

The Rise of Food Banks

The first question must be this: the UK is one of the oldest welfare states in the world, so why are we seeing a huge rise in the number of food banks across the country?

After 10 years of concerted dismantling by Conservative-led governments, holes in our social security net are evident. Ex-PM David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne began their slash and burn romp through the public spending accounts in late 2011. But first, they removed the burden of all that lovely debt from the responsible banks who racked it up, and transferred it to the irresponsible public. The newly inflated national deficit created by this decision became the freshly polished stick of choice to beat down any opposition to austerity. This ideological attack on the state, and the people who rely on its vital services was then repackaged behind the doors of No 10, reframed as a way to empower communities to take responsibility and provide for each other – how nice. But underfunding services does not reduce the level of need in a society. As the Government stepped back, charities – both faith-based and secular – stepped forward as the unwitting cost-free answer to the ongoing national dilemma.

The first food bank was opened in 2002 by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity. By 2012, 252 franchises were in operation, making it the largest network of food banks across the UK. 1.5 million emergency food parcels were distributed in 2018/19, a 16% increase on the previous year.

Graph produced using Trussell Trust data. Available here.

Initial media coverage of this newly emerging phenomenon focussed on the stories and voices of the volunteers as altruistic champions of community spirit. I don’t doubt this assessment of their characters at all. However, little space was given to the voices of those receiving food aid, and even less to a discussion of why this major shift was occurring or what it meant.

Psychological Impacts and (Un)sustainability

We are witnessing a sneaky switcheroo – the state tiptoeing away from its responsibilities, leaving unsuspecting charities to fill in the gaps. Previously, a form of social contract was in place. Put simply: you pay into the system when and if you can, and you are entitled to financial support when needed. For example, if you are made redundant, become ill, or retire. Some of this support would come in the form of cash which you were free to choose how to spend. Of course, this social contract has been undermined by cuts and freezes over a number of austere years – benefits only accounted for 50% of what was needed to ensure a minimum standard of living for a lone parent in 2017. But the emergence and embedding of food banks is quite different. Citizen’s entitlements are being taken away and replaced with gifts. A gift of ‘surplus’ – or waste – food, donated by big supermarkets and ordinary people, given to those in need who are forced to accept whatever they receive with appreciation. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.

This change has a profound psychological impact on those receiving the new ‘gift’. Rightly or wrongly, we live in a society that says you should earn what you get. A society that stigmatises those who are seen to ‘get something for nothing’. The evidence is clear that this move from state entitlement to charitable gift is associated with aid recipients’ heightened feelings of shame and stigma, a lack of agency, and a reduced willingness to engage with the service. Being able to exercise judgement and make our own choices helps us to feel in control. But choices about what we eat are not only about preference. Allergies, illness and wellbeing are key influences on our dietary choices – factors that charitable provision cannot adequately account for. Any action that is taken to address food poverty should not push people away from the help they need, or into danger and ill health.  

So, who benefits from this? Big supermarkets enjoy the good publicity they get when they donate surplus or waste food. Government can point to the commendable work done by charities and quietly retreat with no challenging questions asked. Of course, those who access food banks benefit in the immediate sense. I’ve spoken to people who have said that without help from their local food bank, they wouldn’t have known what to do, that it was a vital lifeline. The growing network of food banks across the country provides a much-needed service when others, including Government, turn a blind eye. However, this short-term fix could cost a long-term solution. The more food poverty is framed as a matter for charity, the less space there is given to discuss the twin failures of working incomes and state benefits, and the legitimate concerns for public health that the situation poses. This is, fundamentally, a political issue of who gets what, when and how.

Remembering the Past

I began by talking about challenges looming on the horizon, but we would do well to remember the lessons of the past. In the 16th century, Christian charity was the primary mechanism of poor relief throughout Europe. Poverty was viewed as an inevitable truth that would persist across time, with the poor and the wealthy imagined to exist in a state of divine interdependence. The poor existed as a means for the wealthy to attain salvation and be granted access to heaven through charitable giving. The poor themselves could not follow the same path, as they had nothing to give. Instead they were told that by enduring their situation and its hardships, they too would earn their place.

The Renaissance and Reformation changed how impoverished people were imagined in medieval Christian minds. Martin Luther’s influential understanding of salvation no longer positioned the poor as instruments for the wealthy to use to attain salvation; their plight was no longer a necessity. Reformers set about improving systems of poor relief to overcome irregular and ineffective charity. These methods were replaced with centralised systems of wealth redistribution. In towns and cities across Europe, ‘community chests’ were established and administered by city authorities, a kind of precursor to the welfare state.

Unfortunately, the story of food banks in the UK today has many similarities to this history, although events seem to be unfolding in the opposite direction – our centralised secular system is being dismantled and replaced with ad-hoc, often faith-based, charitable provision. Now it’s social status, not godliness, that is bestowed on the giver and shame, rather than salvation, hung on the receiver.

A Fresh Perspective

With this in mind, let’s take a refreshed look at the present. Media depictions of food banks often present the growing phenomena as an example of community spirit in action, of our incredible ability to make do when times get tough. I agree. But this picture is often painted at the expense of the wider context and the impact this has on those receiving food aid. We need to recognise that food banks occupy a paradoxical position. They provide a vitally needed service, but in doing so they obscure long term solutions to the problem they try to address. If inadequate incomes and a failing social security system are ignored in the framing of this issue, we won’t find a sustainable solution.

Posing the problem as one to be solved by charity carries the risk that we feel something is being done and that we can leave it at that. It allows Government to point to hard working charities, pat them on the back and abdicate responsibility. Conservative MP Claire Perry recently posted a picture on Twitter, beaming with pride as they opened the latest Trussell Trust food bank. I don’t think for a second that they acted with ill intention, but we shouldn’t care for good intentions when they don’t help families put food on the table in the long run. I care about impact. The policies of Claire Perry’s party are a leading cause of reliance on food banks and threaten to tear up our already fraught social contract.

Good intentions are clearly not enough and there is a much bigger question at hand. How do we as a society want to answer “who gets what, when, how”? Listening to those receiving food aid and remembering the shortcomings of our feudal past, we see the current answer for what it is. The vulnerable get gifted waste food, if their neighbours are feeling generous, in a way that makes them feel ashamed. This answer wasn’t good enough for the 16th century, and it’s insulting now. As a nation we have more than enough food to make sure no one goes hungry, but the current distribution of incomes mean that too much of it is sat on supermarket shelves instead of in bare kitchen cupboards.

We clearly need better answers. They must be sustainable solutions, not a stop-gap that prevents starvation today at the price of prosperity tomorrow. They must re-examine the role and adequacy of our social security system, and ensure that everybody’s basic needs are guaranteed. We should remember that having enough to eat is a human right that our government promised to meet with dignity. This promise cannot be delivered by smiling faces cutting red ribbons at the opening ceremony of another food bank. 

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