A HELPING HAND IN TIMES OF TROUBLE is part of being a good neighbour –
but a healthy society would never allow large numbers of people to become reliant on charity for their essential needs.
Unfortunately, over the last twelve years this is what has happened in the UK. As the value of social security benefits has been systematically reduced, the number of food banks has exploded in response to growing numbers of people who cannot afford to eat. In 2010, the Trussell Trust ran 35 food banks – it now runs over 1300. In addition, the Independent Food Aid Network has identified at least 1,172 independent food banks operating across the UK, and there are countless other informal initiatives springing up as need increases relentlessly.
Even those sobering figures represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wider food insecurity. In its biannual study, the Food Standards Agency found that whilst four per cent of people in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland had used a food bank in the year up to June 2021, almost four times as many, 15 per cent, were classified as food insecure.
The problems inherent in allowing, or effectively forcing, so many people to become dependent on charity to eat is now becoming clear. As the cost of living rises, fewer and fewer people can afford to donate groceries to their local food bank. And of course, this will be more acute in lower income areas, where everybody is on a tighter budget. Many people who have helped in the past are now struggling themselves, and no longer have the means to help their destitute neighbours.
We are now also seeing the folly of linking poverty with the important but entirely unrelated issue of food waste. To many people this seemed like a good idea. Supermarkets and businesses had surplus food which would otherwise be wasted, whilst at the same time people were going hungry. It seemed like common sense to marry the two, and divert the waste to charitable food aid providers.
But now, as businesses strive to become more efficient in response to rising costs, this flow has reduced. Just as demand is rising, supply is falling. Food waste charity Fareshare says it has seen a drop of around 200 tonnes per month of surplus food donations from supermarkets, which is now having an impact on the charities they supply. The Rev Christine Threlfall at St James church in Broughton, Salford has been using Fareshare donations to provide hot meals for people who cannot afford to cook at home: “But now we just don’t have the ingredients.”
As the Plenty To Share campaign says, food waste and poverty are two separate systemic problems, which require separate systemic solutions. Given the political will, we could design waste out of the food system, and design poverty out of our society. “There is enough – if we design a system which wastes less and shares more equally within environmental limits.”
But now, with charities increasingly struggling to meet even a fraction of the existing need, it seems that the government is contemplating not raising benefits in line with inflation. This despite the fact that only last month, an official research briefing for the House of Commons library cited the evidence of millions of people who “ate less or went a day without eating because they couldn’t access or afford food”. Earlier this year, the Food Foundation said: “people who are currently on Universal Credit are five times more likely to be food insecure in the past six months than people not on Universal Credit.” For the government to allow the incomes of the poorest households to fall further, knowing that this is happening, seems morally indefensible.
And as the Conservatives yet again seek to justify such a decision by fuelling resentment towards benefit claimants, we should be aware that, as Tony Wilson of the Institute for Employment Studies has tweeted: “We have pretty much the least generous system in the world – is nonsense to suggest ppl are ‘incentivised’ to stay at home.” Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation has also pointed out how far the real value of benefits has been eroded, tweeting: “In early 80s basic rate of benefits was 25% of average earnings. Now it’s less than 15%. The life of riley is not being lived.”
Indeed, far from living the life of Riley, people have been dying. We now have an academic study which says 330,000 excess deaths (prior to the pandemic) can be attributed to cuts to benefits and public services. This is shocking, but not really a surprise when one considers that since 2010, successive governments have presided over a decline in life expectancy, something almost unheard of in a developed country.
It is surely inevitable that if all food banks and other forms of food aid ceased tomorrow, that excess death toll would rise. It would become a scandal that, one would ardently hope, no government could survive. But of course, precisely because that is what would happen, the people who donate to foodbanks, and those who work in them, will not stop. And so we have a terrible situation in which the compassion and kindness of one part of the population means that the government can keep another part of the population in destitution whilst escaping the political consequences.
Charity, with the best will in the world, is no solution to poverty, and no substitute for social and economic justice. Charity, and particularly food charity which often relies on random donations of bulky and/or perishable items, is patchy, unpredictable, potentially unreliable, and no substitute for an adequate income.
And leaving aside the cracks now appearing in the charitable model – who amongst us would want to be reliant on charity to eat? No matter how much effort goes into making people feel comfortable and treating them with respect, being in the position where you need to use a food bank could never be anything other than a blow to one’s wellbeing.
How many of us would want to eat, not what we like and have chosen from a shop, but whatever waste happens to be in the system this week – food which has been referred to as, ‘left over food for left behind people’? Imagine what it feels like to be a parent having little choice in what you feed your children, because you are reliant on whatever has been donated at the local church?
As Mary McGinley, of the Independent Food Aid Network says: “Food banks should not exist. The UK should be able to provide social security payments that allow people to eat and heat their home. No one should have to rely on charitable food aid to feed themselves and their families.”
It is shameful that food aid has become such an established feature of British society, and it is entirely due to government choices. To compound this shame by further cutting the incomes of the poorest would really plumb the depths of callousness and injustice.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden