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Food poverty, fuel poverty, school uniform poverty – poverty nowadays gets to be labelled. But really, it’s just poverty. If you can’t afford to eat, the chances are you can’t afford to heat your house or buy your kids clothes. This came through loud and clear this week when the Trussell Trust, the charity behind many of Britain’s food banks, said that it was having to restrict the foodstuffs it includes in its packs because of the cost of cooking. So instead of, say, rice, which takes 12 minutes or so to boil, some people will get the kind of instant noodles or mash that take just seconds to be ready with hot water added.
Good for the Trussell Trust for being so sensitive to people’s needs. But I’m not so convinced any more that food banks are such a good idea.
The Trussell Trust is clearly filling a need with its work. Its figures show that between April and the end of September last year 355,000 people received its food parcels – more than in the previous year. People who need help – because their wage or their benefit doesn’t stretch enough to feeding their children for seven days a week – are recommended to the trust by doctors, social workers and other professionals and then get their handout. You get a three-day crisis pack which until now has been nutritionally balanced, although that aim is being compromised by the Trust’s need to help people who can’t afford to do more than boil a kettle in the kitchen. But if you were on the breadline and had to turn to a foodbank, wouldn’t you prefer the dignity of being able to shop yourself at your local store?
Take Tesco, for example, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain. They did a deal with the Trusell Trust, encouraging shoppers to buy an extra can of beans or packet of biscuits which they can then donate to a food bank collection. Yes, Tesco, the company which enjoys £3billion profits a year. Doesn’t that suggest that they could lower their prices and help the needy regain respect from doing their own shopping? As one of the fortunate ones who doesn’t need the Trust’s packages – but still quakes at supermarket prices and looks for bargains – I’d far rather forsake the deals that suit people with money and storage space – three for two or two for one on crisps, cereals, drinks etc – and see all round cheaper prices on value ranges that help those struggling. Or even if they weren’t prepared to go that far, how about more help from the big food chains for the food banks? At the moment 90 per cent of their donations come from the public.
Oxfam’s report, Walking the Breadline, showed that half a million people in Britain are relying on these emergency handouts from food banks. That they can shows a response from local communities to people in dire need – but alongside that compassion, isn’t there a need to pressurise the Government to examine the reasons for food poverty and for the supermarkets to take a more ethical approach to the way they do business?
Supermarkets can do more, as the FareShare initiative shows. The redistribution project takes surplus food from outfits like Tesco and passes it on to charities, including homeless shelters and food banks.
But what makes me uneasy is that buying a can of beans from the supermarket and leaving it in the food bank box is just letting the Government and the retailers off the hook – and keeping people in poverty.
We need a rethink on this twenty-first-century version of charity. Does it enhance people’s dignity and self-esteem? Does it get people out of poverty, or help them find a job?
Over in Canada, the interest now is in helping people grow their own food, organising gardens and greenhouses, and creating work. Isn’t it time we thought about this too?
Catherine Pepinster is the editor of The Tablet