24 January 2014, The Tablet

Why I’m not convinced foodbanks will solve food poverty

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

What do you think?


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User comments (6)

Comment by: Angie M
Posted: 14/02/2014 13:31:51

This article seems to have a bias against foodbanks, though it damns with faint praise the Trussell Trust success in this are. The change to quickly-cooked food is a prudent means of reducing the cost of heating to the consumer – the nourishment is still there.
People who work at foodbanks are doing God’s work. Foodbanks do not perpetuate poverty. They do not take away people’s dignity. Providing a crisis pack is only part of the foodbank activity. Listening and talking and providing a signpost to other facilities is also important for people who visit the foodbank. This helps them to sort their own problems out, which is a good start on the way to finding a job. And yes, we know that jobs are very hard to find at this time, but dignity and self-respect should not be, and they are enhanced by this process.
Supermarkets, despite the drive for profit, each year set aside a number of days for charities to raise funds, and the foodbank is only one of these charities. Shoppers who buy an item for the foodbank are helping other people, as we have all been taught to do.
Growing and selling vegetables is only one way of trying to beating poverty, and it should never be imposed as a ‘job’ on anyone. We would be better served in preparing people to seek out their own jobs, once they have sorted out their immediate problems. Sad to say that some problems will be life-long, but that’s not the fault of the foodbank.

Comment by: JoeWilkinson
Posted: 13/02/2014 12:38:57

As one of the Trustees of Burgess Hill Community Food Bank I can largely agree. Food Banks are sticking-plaster not a long-term solution. And we are finding at least one government agency, the Job Centre, have stopped issuing our food vouchers and are printing their own. This may be more convenient for them (as they can send the same voucher to Haywards Heath!) but it rather co-opts us into the system.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 11/02/2014 22:36:50

Yes, I think partners addicted to alcohol, gambling and stealing are terrible to live with. I would like to see a valid response to be that we work towards a social system that protect the vulnerable, including those in such situations through e.g. the law and education. Another possible and noble response would be to work with the sick and disabled on the many continents. It feels like these two possible responses can help one another?

Whichever these two ways any individual takes, a Christian response would also involve looking to God? This is how I read the line of Jesus from Matthew 26 - when the disciples were moaning about how expensive perfume was wasted by a woman, when it was poured onto Jesus.

Having said this, since God can guide me through my imperfect conscience, I do not quite see why it would be so bad to be motivated by my discomfort of being confronted by having two coats and keeping them.

Comment by: OfNoAccount
Posted: 07/02/2014 02:30:15

I cannot endorse the secular socialist opinion that being given something for nothing is insulting, degrading and wrong.
Jesus told us the poor would always be with us and I take that to include the truth that no social system, scheme or ideology will eliminate poverty. So giving is with us always.
My work in Europe, Asia and Australia amongst the sick and disabled informs me that many who lack essentials do so for reasons that cannot be changed, certainly in the short term. A partner abuses alcohol, gambles or just steals the means of purchasing life essentials. Big business, capitalism, social inequality have nothing to do with it.
Proper exercise of charity will continue to consist of giving without rebuke or condescension. Can we please keep it free of political correctness as well?
The urge to find a society correction to eliminate poverty is likely motivated by our discomfort at being confronted by having two coats and rebuked by keeping them.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 28/01/2014 22:56:26

Thanks for the piece. I also sympathise with the analysis.

I am thinking we can be bolder about a rethink of charity.

In terms of dignity - it seems that everyone should have the right to a dignified life. An unconditional basic income would encourage this. If set at the right level, this basic income would allow everyone in the country not to have to worry about food, clothing and housing. It does not matter if you can no longer find work, because you are a shipbuilder for the whole of your life and the shipyard is shut. It does not matter if you cannot appropriate work easily find suitable work because you are a single parent or because you have to care for elderly parents / relatives.

Actually, in my mind, it shouldn't matter even if you don't feel like "working" - why should someone's working be judged economically more meaningful than others: the profit motive is helpful, but it's not everything. If someone truly has a talent in painting - why force them to divert their precious energy to jobs to stay alive? Would it not be more dignified that the person can spend their full time doing painting?

You should be able to get a basic income for a dignified living, just because - well - you are a human person. One shouldn't have to earn or deserve or be "given" a dignified living - one should simply just have it.

Comment by: [email protected]
Posted: 25/01/2014 21:42:30

I share Catherine Pepinster’s view on food banks. As a one-off short term response to a natural disaster they have a place in any society but not as a long-term means of putting food on the table. Only government can provide a remedy to poverty. It is irresponsible and unjust to leave it merely to the generosity of good Samaritans.


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