Food banks

One of the areas that I have not commented much on to date is concerning the exponential growth of food banks as being one practical response to helping those who find themselves in poverty. Others have, of course, and one local blogger, “A girl called Jack”, has made it one of her main issues, as well as writing about how to make nutritious meals on next to nothing. Recently I signed an online petition Jack was instrumental in putting together to call for a debate on the matter in Parliament. Over 144,000 people signed. Sadly, while the debate that did take place did help at least to raise awareness of some of the issues, but nowhere nearly strongly enough, as Jack’s commentary on what took place shows.

I’m sure the matter won’t go away but I am skeptical enough never to assume the inevitability of a just outcome yet hopeful enough to work for one. I recall my mother telling me stories of families starving, at a time just prior to the War. I wonder if we are going back to those times now. The anecdotal evidence is that however much one might want to rationalise, e.g. people squandering money or being work shy, many, including those who are working or who live on benefits, struggle to find the wherewithal for the basic necessities of life, and food banks help meet that need. Neither should we overlook the sizable number, mainly but not exclusively foreign nationals, that don’t qualify for any welfare benefits.

The reason for not throwing my hat in the ring on this matter more than I have (excuse the mixed metaphor) is not just because others have made it a mission to do so but because there are a number of other poverty focused issues that I am involved with, such as homelessness and immigration and, besides which, I want to get my facts straight. Moreover, I have already made a start on reflecting on some of the issues in my “Outside the Camp” and “Onward and Upward” books, freely downloadable from this website, to which I would refer readers who really want to know what I’m thinking.

Interestingly, yesterday, all over national news reporting, is mention of a report by the Trussell Trust on the numbers of people who are now reliant on food banks. Among other things, the report indicated that approaching staggeringly a million people have received food parcel handouts in the past year. For those of us working in this field, this does not come as a big surprise, although the report does bring home the extent of the problem. My hope is that the interest will now not go away, to be replaced by tomorrow’s news and with little done about addressing what is a major issue for this country.

Two days prior to that, I attended a meeting of a new group in Southend: Street Spirit, with its focus on helping the homeless and how best to do this and was heartened at the response being planned. Homelessness, along with a number of other issues, is linked to food bank usage. I won’t elaborate here, having already written two blog entries on the subject of homelessness, and no doubt will do so again. Yesterday on its facebook page was posted a link to one of the newspaper reports: “The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame”. The sub header was: “600 religious leaders from all denominations combine to condemn 163 per cent increase in food bank use in past year”.

I am going to refrain from commenting much on the church response (potential and actual) other than say I am heartened by the united response of so many Christian leaders from different denominations and express my hope that actions will match words. While churches have failed in substantially addressing many of the issues a lot more than they have, they are often, in my experience, at the forefront of giving practical help, evidenced for example by the winter night shelter program recently undertaken and the fact that the three main food banks in my area (Southend, but more of this later) are strongly Christian based. As for the church response, again this is a subject I have written on at length – in my book “Theological musings”, also downloadable from this website.

One of the issues raised in this report is the notion that the situation may be or has been brought about by the welfare “reforms” of the present government, which was itself partly made in response to the present economic crisis. One consequence of the supposed effects of the reforms, such as the growth of food banks, is that the opposition now can have a field day by blaming the government. Going back to my earlier point, and before I start getting over passionate about the subject and losing the plot altogether, we need to identify the facts and then address the issues. It is not one for political point scoring but rather finding solutions to complex problems.

Let me reiterate my belief that no-one is politically neutral. Having oscillated between political left and right throughout my life, I have now come down somewhere in the middle. I could say I am non political because I have little confidence in any of the main political parties to do what really matters. If I were to vote for any of them, it could well be based on which candidate I feel would do the most good if elected and, more likely than not, he or she won’t stand much of a chance of getting elected anyway, if not belonging to one of the main parties. Yet I am political insofar that I see politics as being a means to an end, especially in a democracy such as ours, for getting things done. However, as things presently stand, how much increase in the common good can be achieved by whatever political party is in power or by individual politicians, other than by helping individually their constituents is, in my view, limited.

While I have no doubt our current economic woes have been brought on by forces and events that are afoot, over which we have limited control, I am also of the belief that if the previous Labour government had done what it should, some of the worse effects might have been averted. Spending money we don’t have to further a misplaced ideology is potentially a recipe for disaster, and that is what had happened under the previous government, coupled with its failure not to reform a broken welfare system. As my dad used to say: “it sometimes pays not to work” and, as my mum used to say: “the wrong people get the benefits“. I have observed, in my early days as a community worker, that people who could work were often signed off as sick and people that couldn’t work (or without a lot of support) were consigned to seek non-existent jobs and undergo harsh restrictions as a condition for receiving benefits.

If anything, the situation has not improved overall, despite the present government trying to achieve much needed reform and enforcing financial restraint. Obviously, where to spend money, and recognising we shouldn’t spend money when we don’t have it, are major issues. By not spending money wisely on alleviating poverty and in creating a welfare reform program where there is plenteous evidence of arbitrary nastiness toward and being out of touch with vulnerable people (as demonstrated through the sanctions that are often imposed for the most innocuous of reasons, yet with devastating effects), seems to me to be one of the likely legacies it looks like this present government is going to leave us.

As I reflect on the growth of food banks, I am mindful that those who use them do so for a variety of reasons. While I have no doubt that the sifting process doesn’t always separate the needy from the greedy or identify those who squander money on non-essentials, drugs and alcohol, I have no doubt the majority who use food banks do so because it is the difference between going without essentials and having basic needs met. Sometimes those affected are the children or parents, who go without so their children have what they need. While some, maybe most, will be on benefits, these may not be enough and some, for whatever reason do not receive benefits and some work but what they get in remuneration is not enough to meet their needs, making food banks a much needed facility.

Regarding food banks, my understanding is there are currently three up and running in Southend, each operating different models:

The Storehouse: this is by far the largest food bank and has been around for a number of years, having grown considerably over that period. It also provides other support services and a community cafe. I have been told by good authority that it now has over 5000 people on its books! It operates the most liberal policy of the three when it comes giving out food parcels although, as one worker once told me, there is a “need to distinguish the needy from the greedy”. All the things mentioned in the report they will no doubt resonate with, having experienced a huge increase in demand for their services and identified huge needs. It is a place I visit from time to time, and where I have made past contributions, as well as invariably meeting clients I know.

Southchurch food bank: this has been operating for a relatively short period, where churches, individuals and agencies working in the surrounding area have recognized significant poverty among some of the residents. It follows the Trussell Trust model, where those receiving parcels are referred by trusted agencies that can help to ascertain where the needs are.

Shoebury food bank: this has also been operating for a relatively short period and focuses on providing food and other material items, along with advice and support, for needy families with children that live in their local area.

Regarding causes and cures for the underlying need and demand for food banks, what should be done to address the large number of poverty related issues, each with enormous ramifications, and what I am doing and am going to do to make a difference, this will have to wait for a future blog entry – but in the meantime do read my books, even if only the sections that appear to be most relevant and, more importantly, find out what you can do to help meet the needs that have led to this huge rise in food banks.