Martin Caraher: Food banks as indicators of the new ‘Tory’ style poor law

The hijacking of food poverty by politicians … seems at best misjudged and at worst a form of political shenanigans. Surely we should be raging against the increased need for food banks and the injustice that drive many of our fellow citizens to use them. 

Martin Caraher, Professor of food and health policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London, examines the complex issues of food poverty, food banks and public attitudes. 

As a Celt cut from the same cloth as Neil M Gunn (and his best friend Maurice Walsh) I was heartened by the recent drive for independence in Scotland, less thrilled by the result. An independent Scotland would have opened up debates about the sort of societies we have in GB & NI and perhaps have provided a model of operation that was socially just. As it is, Scotland continues to provide a model of caring concern in the areas of health and education and even some areas of food with the retention of the Food Standards Agency. Would independence have banished the spectre of poverty and specifically food poverty? Probably not, but it might have helped a move back to the founding principles of the welfare state and a concern for the health of citizens.

I am totally mystified by the call for those disappointed yes voters (YESSERS) to band together to support food banks. The hijacking of food poverty by politicians at rallies following the referendum seems at best misjudged and at worst a form of political shenanigans. Surely we should be raging against the increased need for food banks and the injustice that drive many of our fellow citizens to use them.

fund raising website recently stated: ‘it would be fabulous to keep the momentum going that has been created by the 45% of the Scottish population that voted Yes. If every Yessers donated £1 then we could help feed the people who are struggling with their food bills. I voted Yes to create a fairer society, maybe by donating we can take positive action in going some way to help create a the legacy that will continue the spirit and hope of the Yes vote’.

But this misses the point: this will not contribute to a legacy of addressing inequality and a fair society and may in fact create new divides in society. Let’s be clear: food banks are a blot on the social landscape, an indication of the failure of society and the demise of the concept of the greater good that the welfare state was built on. Dani Garavelli in the Scotsman called them a ‘scab on the face of humanity’. Winne, a food activist in the US, says:

In the same vein we must seriously examine the role of food banking, which requires that we no longer praise its growth as a sign of our generosity and charity, but instead recognize it as a symbol of our society’s failure to hold government accountable for hunger, food insecurity and poverty.

During the miners strike of 1984/5 we saw community run food banks emerging as miners and their families were excluded from social welfare. There was a backlash at the time, with some from the political right, condemning food banks and those who contributed to them; now they are part of the Big Society agenda which encourages communities to help themselves, as long as they are not political and even better if they are faith based!!! But, the current scale of organisation and reach is unprecedented. The last seven years has found them mushrooming in the UK, from one in 2000 to hundreds now, why is this?

From 2007 onwards, related to the global financial crises, those on low incomes traded down buying branded foods and then shopping in discount outlets, the last resort was food banks when even shopping in discount stores became too expensive. The increase in demand, the changing category of those in need to include those who are working but on low-incomes or even juggling two or three jobs are all reasons for increasing use of food banks. As food prices increase income remains at best stable and other budget demands such as fuel and housing place ever increasing demands on households and their resources and food is the elastic item in the budget. You can compromise and trade down often with health consequences but for most people in straightened circumstance the key issue is hunger and, particularly, not seeing your children go hungry. Unfortunately the energy-dense food that wards off hunger has long term negative health consequences.

The reasons for the increase in the numbers of food banks are a meeting of the dichotomies of caring concern and rising need. However, we need to question how contributing to a food charity leads to a fairer society. People should not have to depend on charity for the basics. The politicisation of food donation and food banks by politicians as seen in wake of the recent referendum appear to be short-sighted and lack a political nous, it that it leads to a de-politicisation of food poverty and hunger and suggests that charity can solve the problem.

The investment in food banks run by faith-based charities risks creating other divides in our society. I have recently been to a number of Muslim food banks who have set up because they are unhappy with the provision of food through a Christian charity such as the Trussell Trust. While it is good that communities and faith communities help their members it is important to remember such developments can reinforce the retreat of the state from welfare provision. The right to food is a societal one and one enshrined in human rights legislation. Food banks can undermine the state’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to food. They are meeting a new hunger – itself a complicated concept which gives rise to much political and popular media murmurings about the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’.

Studies of food bank users provide a sobering reminder of the indignity of poverty and how distribution channels of emergency food aid and the right to food are important. The accounts of users of food banks reveal feelings of being a victim; shame and gratitude are the emotional rules of the encounter. What is not appreciated is the stigma attached to seeking help and the admission that you cannot feed your family. Some of the current debates exclude this perspective, portraying those on benefits as ‘scroungers’/undeserving poor, this is possibly linked to the argument that the general public and even politicians overestimate what benefit levels are and the ability of people to cope on benefits. The recent report from Oxfam says they should be seen as a last resort when other means of assistance have failed.

Food banks are probably here to stay – they are now part of the social landscape – but we need  to curtail the growth of more and more outlets. Being realistic, I think that charitable food assistance can serve a critical short-term need. We should be able to measure success by the retreat of food banks. At best they should be emergency sources of food aid in times of crisis for vulnerable groups rather than being the mainstay of food assistance for many. There are, of course, a whole raft of food projects which try to help in other ways: growing projects, community owned and operated food co-ops; social solidarity stores. All these offer other ways of addressing food poverty within contemporary and normative ideals. These see the way forward through food democracy with people having a say in their food choices and involvement based on community ownership and mutuality. This approach was laid out in the Scottish Community Diet Project, perhaps a revitalisation of this programme would be a better approach to addressing food poverty.

While recognising the role of volunteers and food banks in filling gaps, I feel that all this is happening within a paradox: there are no real problems with the overall amount of food in the UK. There is enough food, but access and the right to that food are the issues. Current government policy, from Westminster, seems to be that it is okay for people to receive food through charity but not for the state to address this lack of access and right to food.

Let food banks get back to what they do best, filling gaps where the state has failed, instead of usurping the role of the state.  And let not politicians further undermine this role.

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